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People need to recognize when they are compromising their privacy, a new study says.
“How can we make sense of the contradictory attitudes that individuals display toward privacy—from the seemingly reckless willingness of some to post personal and even incriminating information on social network sites, to the concern people express over the range of information being collected about them and the way it’s being used?” wrote Carnegie Mellon University researchers Leslie K. John, Alessandro Acquisti, and George Loewenstein.
They found cues give rise to different levels of disclosure across situations.
In their first experiment, the researchers asked visitors to The New York Times website either directly or indirectly whether they had cheated on their taxes. Of those that answered, 21 percent admitted to cheating when asked indirectly, versus 12.9 percent asked directly.
In subsequent experiments, participants were asked whether they had engaged in a series of different behaviors. Some participants answered a survey on a website intentionally made to look unprofessional, with a header that asked “How BAD Are U???” in a red font next to a cartoon devil logo. Others answered the same survey on a website that billed it as “Carnegie Mellon University Executive Council Survey on Ethical Behaviors” next to the university crest. “People were more willing to divulge sensitive information when the survey was administered on an unprofessional-looking website,” the authors said.
They found they could cue participants to become more aware of privacy issues. People who completed a photo-identification task that asked them to identify phishing emails (designed to lure recipients into revealing information such as passwords) were less likely to disclose sensitive information in the next experiment.
“People seem naturally comfortable disclosing personal information on unprofessional websites—which are arguably more likely to misuse it,” the authors said. “The present research raises issues about people’s ability to navigate these complexities in a self-interested fashion.”

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