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Tuesday, November 2, 2021

Our evolved intuitions about privacy aren’t made for this era

Joe Green & Azim Shariff
Originally published September 16, 2021

Here is an excerpt:

Our concern for privacy has its evolutionary roots in the need to maintain boundaries between the self and others, for safety and security. The motivation for personal space and territoriality is a common phenomenon within the animal kingdom. Among humans, this concern about regulating physical access is complemented by one about regulating informational access. The language abilities, complex social lives and long memories of human beings made protecting our social reputations almost as important as protecting our physical bodies. Norms about sexual privacy, for instance, are common across cultures and time periods. Establishing basic seclusion for secret trysts would have allowed for all the carnal benefits without the unwelcome reputational scrutiny.

Since protection and seclusion must be balanced with interaction, our privacy concern is tuned to flexibly respond to cues in our environment, helping to determine when and what and with whom we share our physical space and personal information. We reflexively lower our voices when strange or hostile interlopers come within earshot. We experience an uneasy creepiness when someone peers over our shoulder. We viscerally feel the presence of a crowd and the public scrutiny that comes with it.

However, just as the turtles’ light-orienting reflex was confounded by the glow of urban settlements, so too have our privacy reactions been confounded by technology. Cameras and microphones – with their superhuman sensory abilities – were challenging enough. But the migration of so much of our lives online is arguably the largest environmental shift in our species’ history with regard to privacy. And our evolved privacy psychology has not caught up. Consider how most people respond to the presence of others when they are in a crowd. Humans use a host of social cues to regulate how much distance they keep between themselves and others. These include facial expression, gaze, vocal quality, posture and hand gestures. In a crowd, such cues can produce an anxiety-inducing cacophony. Moreover, our hair-trigger reputation-management system – critical to keeping us in good moral standing within our group – can drive us into a delirium of self-consciousness.

However, there is some wisdom in this anxiety. Looking into the whites of another’s eyes anchors us within the social milieu, along with all of its attendant norms and expectations. As a result, we tread carefully. Our private thoughts generally remain just that – private, conveyed only to small, trusted groups or confined to our own minds. But as ‘social networks’ suddenly switched from being small, familiar, in-person groupings to online social media platforms connecting millions of users, things changed. Untethered from recognisable social cues such as crowding and proximity, thoughts better left for a select few found their way in front of a much wider array of people, many of whom do not have our best interests at heart. Online we can feel alone and untouchable when we are neither.

Consider, too, our intuitions about what belongs to whom. Ownership can be complicated from a legal perspective but, psychologically, it is readily inferred from an early age (as anyone with young children will have realised). This is achieved through a set of heuristics that provide an intuitive ‘folk psychology’ of ownership. First possession (who first possessed an object), labour investment (who made or modified an object), and object history (information about past transfer of ownership) are all cues that people reflexively use in attributing the ownership of physical things – and consequently, the right to open, inspect or enter them.