The weird psychological reason people reveal so much about themselves online

Years ago, most of us didn’t think twice about posting our phone number on MySpace or sharing the intimate details of our day on Facebook. Since then a lot has changed, though, and after countless data harvesting scandals and millions of stolen identities, many have caught on that a low online profile is probably for the best. Although let’s be honest, there are still tons of people posting way too much information on social media.

Even today, in this modern era where anything posted online is highly scrutinized and internet scams are everywhere, many individuals who consider themselves extra careful about their online security can’t help but fork over sensitive data like phone numbers, addresses, bank details, and even social security numbers all because a website or app asked for those details.

So, why can’t we stop ourselves from sharing personal information online? 

Researchers from Penn State set out to answer that conundrum and came to numerous interesting conclusions. They identified 12 types of psychological cues that subconsciously push people to reveal more about themselves than they are probably comfortable with. 

These cues, according to the study’s authors, take advantage of people’s preconceived beliefs regarding control, instant gratification, transparency, machine, publicness, mobility, authority, bandwagon, reciprocity, sense-of-community, community-building, and self-preservation.

“Most people will tell you they’re pretty worried about their online privacy and that they take precautions, such as changing their passwords,” says study author S. Shyam Sundar, a Professor of Media Effects in the Donald P. Bellisario College of Communications and co-director of the Media Effects Research Laboratory, in a university release. “But, in reality, if you really look at what people do online and on social media, they tend to reveal all too much. What we think is going on is that people make disclosures in the heat of the moment by falling for contextual cues that appear on an interface.”

“What we did in this study is to identify 12 different kinds of appeals that influence people to reveal information online,” Sundar continues. “These appeals are based on rules of thumb that we all hold in our head, called heuristics.”

For the research, 786 participants took part in a survey. Each person was presented with 12 hypothetical online scenarios and asked how willing they would be to provide that requested personal information across each situation.

One example given by the research team is the common thought process of “if everyone else is sharing this data with a particular app or website, I’ll be ok as well.” This notion falls under the bandwagon heuristic. In all likelihood, there are many more heuristics, or cues, than just 12, but Sundar and his team believe those are the most common.

An example of the authority cue would be someone who is usually super careful about their banking information feeling comfortable about providing their bank login details just because an app or website displays the FDIC logo.

“The presence of a logo of a trusted agency such as FDIC or even a simple icon showing a lock can make users of online banking feel safe and secure, and it makes them feel that somewhere somebody is looking after their security,” comments study co-author Mary Beth Rosson, Professor-in-Charge of Human-Computer Interaction and director of graduate programs in the College of Information Sciences and Technology.

Most of these cues influence our online decisions without us even realizing what is happening. Rosson uses LinkedIn as an example of the bandwagon cue.

“For example, when you go on LinkedIn and you see a statement that says your profile is incomplete and that 70 percent of your connections have completed their profiles, that’s a cue that triggers your need to follow others — which is what we call a bandwagon effect,” he explains. “We found that those with a stronger pre-existing belief in ‘bandwagon heuristic’ were more likely to reveal personal information in such a scenario.”

The researchers hope that their findings help everyone make more informed decisions online. Simply being aware of these cues may help tons of people avoid common mistakes. Just because a website has a tiny Bank of America logo in the corner, that doesn’t mean it’s looking out for your best interests. Similarly, the next time a social media platform recommends you “complete your profile,” keep in mind that you don’t have to provide any information you’re not comfortable sharing. 

Professor Rosson believes that an alert system could be designed that warns users whenever they encounter these cues.

“People want to do the right thing and they want to protect their privacy, but in the heat of the moment online, they are swayed by these contextual cues. One way to avoid this is to introduce ‘just-in-time’ alerts. Just as users are about to reveal information, an alert could pop up on the site and ask them if they are sure they want to do that. That might give them a bit of a pause to think about that transaction,” she suggests.

Trying to maintain anonymity and security online can feel like a self-defeating exercise. Due to the world we all find ourselves living in, it’s very difficult to completely avoid online profiles, endless passwords that are inevitably forgotten, and scam emails. The internet isn’t all bad, though, and remembering these cues can go a long way towards maintaining some peace of mind.

The full study can be found here, published in Proceedings of Computer-Human Interaction.

John Anderer is a frequent contributor to Ladders News.