How Much We Share Online: The Role of Cognitive Scarcity in Privacy Disclosure Behaviour

TL;DR Our cognitive resources are scarce, i.e. we have a limited “mental bandwidth” available to us. We have conducted an online experiment with nearly 1000 people and found that online information disclosure behavior (e.g. how much we share) is affected by different forms of cognitive scarcity.

If this is a digital era than all the activities we perform on Internet from searching for information to reading & watching and to sharing & talking are deeply linked with privacy issues. And it is not only about hardware, hacking and agendas of governmental agencies from different sides of the pond. It is about us and our abilities to make smart choices when it comes to disclosing sensitive information. We value our privacy more when we have it, but when we need to forgo something in order to get it – that’s where we fail. Just to illustrate, one of the studies (1) showed that people in general are not willing to forgo $2 by switching from $12 traceable gift-card to $10 “anonymous” gift-card.

Sharing information, mostly through social networks, about ourself and what’s around us is a part of non-questionable behavior in this digital era. This sacred ritual is performed to stay included in the digital social life, break self-esteem barriers (2) or fulfill ego needs (3). So, the key questions is how much and what we share. We know we should not share too much and claim so, but our behaviour is not inline with our intentions. Such behaviour was even coined with the term “privacy paradox”: we say we care a lot about our privacy but our online behaviour is different from what we actually say.

That’s why Giuseppe Veltri (University of Trento) and I have decided to explore what are the factors that define how much we disclose and whether we can experimentally manipulate how much we share.

What we already know about sharing too much

Quite a few studies and experiments have explored factors that affect sharing too much (4). Some of the most interesting factors that were discovered so far are illustrated below (note: the list of the factors is far longer as we arbitrary selected just few of them)

Illustrations by: Brainer Design Studio

(1) Decision context framing. Professionally designed web pages do not necessarily make people disclose more. Opposite can be true. Unprofessional-looking web pages or survey instruments may suppress privacy concerns

(2) Defaults & other nudges. Preset defaults values (aka #nudges) considerably affect how much we share. Yes, you Facebook!

(3) Cozy decision environment. Warm, comfortable rooms with soft lighting makes us share more

(4) Herd mentality. When we see how much other people disclose, a “herding effect”

(5) Forgetting about being observed. Even when we know we have been monitored, we adapt. We become accustomed to surveillance and moreover after “breaking the ice”, we show less concern about disclosing from that point on

What else?

What if we are slightly off from our normal behaviour? Perhaps we got tired after spending the day at work? Or if we multitask trying to do several things at the same time – working on the Powerpoint presentation for your next meeting, creating grocery list in our mind and keeping your eye on incoming messages in your messenger of choice. Some theories suggest it is possible to reach states of cognitive depletion when our limited cognitive capabilities affect our decision making processes.

So, Giuseppe Veltri (University of Trento) and I have conducted online experiment (5) where we explored the role of different cognitive scarcities on how much we disclose private information of sensitive nature. In this study, we used 2 different types scarcities: ego depletion and limited working memory. Ego depletion refers to the idea that self-control or willpower draws upon a limited pool of mental resources that can be used up (6). Working memory is a cognitive system with a limited capacity that is responsible for temporarily holding information available for decision processing (7).

Running experiment with almost one thousand individuals in UK on Expilab’s digital research platform, we observed that people tend to share more under different types of cognitive load (when cognitive scarcities are reached). In other words, carrying out other activities while making privacy related decisions may negatively affect how much of sensitive information is disclosed.

Those who interested may access our paper published in “Computers in Human Behaviour” journal here (external link). If you like to cite our paper, here is a full citation:

Veltri, G. A., & Ivchenko, A. (2017). The impact of different forms of cognitive scarcity on online privacy disclosure. Computers in Human Behavior, 73, 238-246.

Abstract: The way in which people manage information disclosure contributes to one of the biggest challenges of the information age – online privacy. The current study sheds a light on the privacy paradox, a gap between attitudes and behaviour, by exploring the role of cognitive scarcity in privacy disclosure behaviour. Using a large sample of the UK online general population (N = 969), we conducted a Randomised Controlled Trial experiment to test the effect of two forms of induced cognitive scarcity: ego depletion and working memory load, on information disclosure levels. Results indicate a significant effect of both forms of scarcity on information disclosure in the direction of increasing the latter, even in the context of a generalised high disclosure. Findings are discussed in light of the privacy paradox, future research, possible remedies and interventions.

Keywords: Cognitive scarcity; Information disclosure; Working memory; Ego depletion; Privacy

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