Essay/Cognition & Intelligence

Too much information

Our instincts for privacy evolved in tribal societies where walls didn't exist. No wonder we are hopeless oversharers

Ian Leslie

Students at a Bi-Partisan Privacy Caucus briefing to discuss the "Do Not Track Kids Act," concerned with protecting children and teen privacy online. Photo By Chris Maddaloni/Getty

Ian Leslie

writes about psychology, politics and social trends. His latest book is Curious: The Desire to Know and Why Your Future Depends on It (2014). He lives in London.

2,100 words

Edited by Brigid Hains

Republish - Licence Only

In October 2012 a woman from Massachusetts called Lindsey Stone went on a work trip to Washington DC, and paid a visit to Arlington National Cemetery, where American war heroes are buried. Crouching next to a sign that said ‘Silence and Respect’, she raised a middle finger and pretended to shout while a colleague took her photo. It was the kind of puerile clowning that most of us (well me, anyway) have indulged in at some point, and once upon a time, the resulting image would have been noticed only by the few friends or family to whom the owner of the camera showed it. However, this being the era of sharing, Stone posted the photo to her Facebook profile.

Within weeks, a ‘Fire Lindsey Stone’ page had materialised, populated by commentators frothing with outrage at a desecration of hallowed ground. Anger rained down on Stone’s employer, a non-profit that helps adults with special needs. Her employers decided, reluctantly, that Stone and her colleague would have to leave.

More recently, Edward Snowden’s revelations about the panoptic scope of government surveillance have raised the hoary spectre of ‘Big Brother’. But what Prism’s fancy PowerPoint decks and self-aggrandising logo suggest to me is not so much an implacable, omniscient overseer as a bunch of suits in shabby cubicles trying to persuade each other they’re still relevant. After all, there’s little need for state surveillance when we’re doing such a good job of spying on ourselves. Big Brother isn’t watching us; he’s taking selfies and posting them on Instagram like everyone else. And he probably hasn’t given a second thought to what might happen to that picture of him posing with a joint.

Get Aeon straight to your inbox

Walls are a relatively recent innovation. Members of pre-modern societies happily coexisted while carrying out almost all of their lives in public view

Stone’s story is hardly unique. Earlier this year, an Aeroflot air hostess was fired from her job after a picture she had taken of herself giving the finger to a cabin full of passengers circulated on Twitter. She had originally posted it to her profile on a Russian social networking site without, presumably, envisaging it becoming a global news story. Every day, embarrassments are endured, jobs lost and individuals endangered because of unforeseen consequences triggered by a tweet or a status update. Despite the many anxious articles about the latest change to Facebook’s privacy settings, we just don’t seem to be able to get our heads around the idea that when we post our private life, we publish it.

At the beginning of this year, Facebook launched the drably named ‘Graph Search’, a search engine that allows you to crawl through the data in everyone else’s profiles. Days after it went live, a tech-savvy Londoner called Tom Scott started a blog in which he posted details of searches that he had performed using the new service. By putting together imaginative combinations of ‘likes’ and profile settings he managed to turn up ‘Married people who like prostitutes’, ‘Single women nearby who like to get drunk’, and ‘Islamic men who are interested in other men and live in Tehran’ (where homosexuality is illegal).

Scott was careful to erase names from the screenshots he posted online: he didn’t want to land anyone in trouble with employers, or predatory sociopaths, or agents of repressive regimes, or all three at once. But his findings served as a reminder that many Facebook users are standing in their bedroom naked without realising there’s a crowd outside the window. Facebook says that as long as users are given the full range of privacy options, they can be relied on to figure them out. Privacy campaigners want Facebook and others to be clearer and more upfront with users about who can view their personal data. Both agree that users deserve to be given control over their choices.

But what if the problem isn’t Facebook’s privacy settings, but our own?

A few years ago George Loewenstein, professor of behavioural economics at Carnegie Mellon University in Pittsburgh, set out to investigate how people think about the consequences of their privacy choices on the internet. He soon concluded that they don’t.

In one study, Loewenstein and his collaborators asked two groups of students to fill out an online survey about their lives. Everyone received the same questions, ranging from the innocuous to the embarrassing or potentially incriminating. One group was presented with an official-looking website that bore the imprimatur of their university, and were assured that their answers would remain anonymous. The other group filled out the questions on a garishly coloured website on which the question ‘How BAD Are U???’ was accompanied by a grinning devil. It featured no assurance of anonymity.

Bizarrely, the ‘How BAD Are U???’ website was much more likely to elicit revealing confessions, like whether a student had copied someone else’s homework or tried cocaine. The first set of respondents reacted cautiously to the institutional feel of the first website and its obscurely concerning assurances about anonymity. The second group fell under the sway of the perennial youthful imperative to be cool, and opened up, in a way that could have got them into serious trouble in the real world. The students were using their instincts about privacy, and their instincts proved to be deeply wayward. ‘Thinking about online privacy doesn’t come naturally to us,’ Loewenstein told me when I spoke to him on the phone. ‘Nothing in our evolution or culture has equipped us to deal with it.’

When a boy hit puberty, he disappeared into the jungle, returning a man. In today’s digital culture this is precisely the stage at which we make our lives most exposed to the public gaze

We might be particularly prone to disclosing private information to a well-designed digital interface, making an unconscious and often unwise association between ease-of-use and safety. For example, a now-defunct website called solicited anonymous confessions. The original format of the site was a masterpiece of bad font design: it used light grey text on a dark grey background, making it very hard to read. Then, in 2008, the site had a revamp, and a new, easier-to-read black font against a white background was adopted. The cognitive scientists Adam Alter and Danny Oppenheimer gathered a random sample of 500 confessions from either side of the change. They found that the confessions submitted after the redesign were generally far more revealing than those submitted before: instead of minor peccadilloes, people admitted to major crimes. (Facebook employs some of the best web designers in the world.)

This is not the only way our deeply embedded real-world instincts can backfire online. Take our rather noble instinct for reciprocity: returning a favour. If I reveal personal information to you, you’re more likely to reveal something to me. This works reasonably well when you can see my face and make a judgment about how likely I am to betray your confidence, but on Facebook it’s harder to tell if I’m trustworthy. Loewenstein found that people were much readier to answer probing questions if they were told that others had already answered them. This kind of rule-of-thumb — when in doubt, do what everyone else is doing — works pretty well when it comes to things such as what foods to avoid, but it’s not so reliable on the internet. As James Grimmelmann, director of the intellectual property programme at the University of Maryland, puts it in his article ‘Facebook and the Social Dynamics of Privacy’ (2008): ‘When our friends all jump off the Facebook privacy bridge, we do too.’

Giving people more control over their privacy choices won’t solve these deeper problems. Indeed, Loewenstein found evidence for a ‘control paradox’. Just as many people mistakenly think that driving is safer than flying because they feel they have more control over it, so giving people more privacy settings to fiddle with makes them worry less about what they actually divulge.

Then again, perhaps none of this matters. Facebook’s founder Mark Zuckerberg is not the only tech person to suggest that privacy is an anachronistic social convention about which younger generations care little. And it’s certainly true that for most of human existence, most people have got by with very little private space, as I found when I spoke to John L Locke, professor of linguistics at Ohio University and the author of Eavesdropping: An Intimate History (2010). Locke told me that internal walls are a relatively recent innovation. There are many anthropological reports of pre-modern societies whose members happily coexisted while carrying out almost all of their lives in public view.

You might argue, then, that the internet is simply taking us back to something like a state of nature. However, hunter-gatherer societies never had to worry about invisible strangers; not to mention nosy governments, rapacious corporations or HR bosses. And even in the most open cultures, there are usually rituals of withdrawal from the arena. ‘People have always sought refuge from the public gaze,’ Locke said, citing the work of Paul Fejos, a Hungarian-born anthropologist who, in the 1940s, studied the Yagua people of Northern Peru, who lived in houses of up to 50 people. There were no partitions, but inhabitants could achieve privacy any time they wanted by simply turning away. ‘No one in the house,’ wrote Fejos, ‘will look upon, or observe, one who is in private facing the wall, no matter how urgently he may wish to talk to him.’

The need for privacy remains, but the means to meet it — our privacy instincts — are no longer fit for purpose

From the 1960s onwards, Thomas Gregor, professor of anthropology at Vanderbilt University in Nashville, studied an indigenous Brazilian tribe called the Mehinaku, who lived in oval huts with no internal walls, each housing a family of 10 or 12. Mehinaku villagers were expected to remove themselves altogether from the life of the village at important stages of life, such as adolescence. When a boy hit puberty, he disappeared into the jungle, returning a man. In today’s digital culture, of course, this is precisely the stage at which we make our lives most exposed to the public gaze.

Grimmelmann thinks the suggestion that we are voluntarily waving goodbye to privacy is nonsense: ‘The way we think about privacy might change, but the instinct for it runs deep.’ He points out that today’s teenagers retain as fierce a sense of their own private space as previous generations. But it’s much easier to shut the bedroom door than it is to prevent the spread of your texts or photos through an online network. The need for privacy remains, but the means to meet it — our privacy instincts — are no longer fit for purpose.

Over time, we will probably get smarter about online sharing. But right now, we’re pretty stupid about it. Perhaps this is because, at some primal level, we don’t really believe in the internet. Humans evolved their instinct for privacy in a world where words and acts disappeared the moment they were spoken or made. Our brains are barely getting used to the idea that our thoughts or actions can be written down or photographed, let alone take on a free-floating, indestructible life of their own. Until we catch up, we’ll continue to overshare.

A long-serving New York Times journalist who recently left his post was clearing his desk when he came across an internal memo from 1983 on computer policy. It said that while computers could be used to communicate, they should never be used for indiscreet or potentially embarrassing messages: ‘We have typewriters for that.’ Thirty years later, and the Kremlin’s security agency has concluded that The New York Times IT department was on to something: it recently put in an order for electric typewriters. An agency source told Russia’s Izvestiya newspaper that, following the WikiLeaks and Snowden scandals, and the bugging of the Russian prime minister Dmitry Medvedev at the G20 summit in London, ‘it has been decided to expand the practice of creating paper documents’.

Its invention enabled us to capture and store our thoughts and memories but, today, the best thing about paper is that it can be shredded.

Ideas should be free

If you enjoy Aeon, please show your support

Aeon is not-for-profit
and free for everyone
Make a Donation
Get Aeon straight
to your inbox
Sign up
Follow us on

The open mind

The most vivid part of the mind bubbles up through sensation and new experience when unencumbered by analytical thought

Daniel J Siegel

Video/Gender & Sexuality

The origins of the high five, and its inventor – an unsung gay pioneer

10 minutes


How the cute Pikachu is a chocolate milkshake for the brain

Joel Frohlich


Athletes endure a bizarre, nearly impossible 100-mile race for its sheer thrill

23 minutes


Some patients in a vegetative state can still communicate

Tommaso Bruni

Essay/Social Psychology

Group smarts

Groupthink can be stultifying. So how do the most successful groups elicit collective intelligence from their members?

Jane C Hu