Wednesday, April 15, 2009

CyLab Seminar Series: Of Frogs, Herds, Behavioral Economics, Malleable Privacy Valuations, and Context-Dependent Willingness to Divulge Personal Info

[NOTE: CyLab's weekly seminar series provides a powerful platform for the highlighting vital research. The physical audience in the auditorium is composed of Carnegie Mellon University faculty and graduate students, but CyLab's corporate partners also have access via the World Wide Web. On a frequent basis, CyBlog will wet your appetite by offering brief glimpses into these talks. Here are my notes from a talk delivered by Alessandro Acquisti on 4-6-09. -- Richard Power]

The boiling frog story states that a frog can be boiled alive if the water is heated slowly enough — it is said that if a frog is placed in boiling water, it will jump out, but if it is placed in cold water that is slowly heated, it will never jump out. Wikipedia

CyLab Seminar Series Notes: Of Frogs & Herds, Behavioral Economics, Malleable Privacy Valuations, & Context-Dependent Willingness to Divulge Personal Info

Carnegie Mellon University CyLab researcher Alessandro Acquisti, Assistant Professor of Information Technology and Public Policy at Carnegie Mellon’s H. John Heinz III College, always warns his students not to trust Wikipedia; nevertheless, this Boiling Frog story, whether apocryphal or not, provides a useful foil for some fascinating research.

Working with collaborators Leslie John and George Loewenstein, Acquisti has been delving into the mysteries of privacy and security from a behavioral economics perspective. Aquisti and his colleagues see a great application for this particular discipline in the exploration of privacy and security decision-making.

“Behavioral economics is a field of economics that combines psychology plus more traditional economic thinking to understand why people really make decisions, and why certain decisions are sometimes sub-optimal, inconsistent and paradoxical,” Acquisti explains.

Acquisiti’s seminar focused on three studies his team had conducted:

Study 1: The “frog” effect (or lack thereof) on information disclosure.
Study 2: The “herding” effect on information disclosure.
Study 3: The effect of framing on privacy values.

“We feel we are uncovering something novel and peculiar to the privacy area.”

These notes will focus on Study 1.

The research on the “frog” effect explores the impact of privacy intrusions on the propensity to disclose, and in particular, what A sees as “a crucial question, one of the most interesting questions, and one of the most difficult to answer, “Do privacy intrusions (and how we react them) alert or rather desensitize individuals to privacy concerns”

“We live in a society in which every week in the media there is some new event, e.g., exposing personal data on millions of consumers, NSA is spying on domestic communications, passport records of important people are being accessed illegally, etc. Does all of this exposure to privacy intrusions make people believe that well, there is no privacy any longer, so I stop caring; there is so much information out there that there is nothing I can do about it? Or, in fact, is it the opposite, there is so much discussion and so much evidence of intrusions that it will create the opposite effect, at a certain moment, subjects start saying this is too much, enough is enough, and start reacting?”

“This is a difficult question to answer. Because you have to combine longitudinal data and effect, the age effect and the cohort effect, e.g., ‘Do you people use Facebook so much because they are young (age effect) or because they are born in a certain culture (cohort effect)?’ And in the absence of a longitudinal study that tracks people over ten, twenty or thirty years, what we did was simulate a scenario of privacy intrusions by creating a survey of questions with different levels of sensitivity. The sensitivity of the questions ranged from the tame, e.g., ‘Have you ever failed to turn the lights out at home or at work when you left?’ to the intrusive, e.g., ‘Have you ever had sex with the current husband, wife or partner of a friend?’

The survey included ten tame questions, ten moderately intrusive questions, and ten intrusive questions. The design of the survey included randomly assigning respondents to eight different conditions, e.g., the order of the questions, i.e., from tame to intrusive or from intrusive to tame as well as in pseudo-random or sudden order. It was framed as a survey on “ethical behavior.’ Another important factor was when respondents were asked for identifying information, i.e., at the beginning or at the end. “As you can imagine, people were much more willing to give an e-mail address before seeing the survey then after seeing what the survey was about.” The pool of respondents consisted of online readers of the New York Times (NYT), and the survey was linked to from the blog of a NYT op-ed columnist.

“We manipulated the order in which questions were presented to survey participants. Some subjects would see a survey which started with very tame questions and then increasingly became very intrusive. While other subjects started from the very intrusive questions and then went down to questions of lower and lower sensitivity.”

Two hypotheses were tested: the “Frog” hypothesis and the “Coherent Arbitrariness” hypothesis. The “Frog” hypothesis says that people will admit to sensitive behavior more often when they get “warmed up” by getting the tame questions before the more intrusive ones. The “Coherent Arbitrariness” says that people will admit to sensitive behavior less often when they “warmed up” by the survey, because their expectations about the intrusiveness of the survey will be established early on.

The “Coherent Arbitrariness” hypothesis was the one supported.

The “Frog” hypothesis was strongly rejected by the data.

Subjects in the increasing condition admitted to sensitive, moderate, and tame behaviors less often than subjects in other conditions

Subjects in the decreasing condition admitted to sensitive behaviors more often than subjects in other conditions

Bottom line: starting a survey with tame questions, then increasing their intrusiveness, inhibits information disclosure. Sensitive behaviors were more frequently admitted to when asked first.

To read a CyLab Chronicles Q&A with Alessandro Acquisti, click here.

For information on the benefits of partnering with CyLab, contact Gene Hambrick, CyLab Director of Corporate Relations: hambrick at