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While this behavior might seem irrational, the researchers say their volunteers may have had the impression that the least official-looking website would be least likely to store or use their personal secrets.

Marketers could see this behavior as a good thing, Acquisti says. They could exploit it by designing websites that encourage visitors to spill more information. On the downside, sites with an unprofessional design are more likely to lack privacy protections or sell their users’ personal information to spammers.

The Carnegie Mellon group found that the phrasing of questions also affects how much information people will divulge. For example, people clammed up when asked point-blank if they had ever gone on a date just to make someone jealous. But they replied more openly when asked “If you have ever gone on a date just to make someone jealous, how unethical do you think it was?” Acquisti says such phrasing can distract people from the fact that they’re divulging personal information.

“Our lesson here is that it’s difficult for all of us to navigate issues of privacy and choose the optimal balance of revelation and disclosure, because little contextual cues can dramatically change our propensity to reveal,” Acquisti says.

Joseph Bonneau, a University of Cambridge researcher who has shown that social networks get more data from users when they bury their privacy settings, says the Carnegie Mellon group’s work establishes important facts about how people reveal information. “They’ve documented it very strongly, I think,” he says.

Bonneau believes these findings will prove important in the context of regulations covering what information marketers can collect from users and how they disclose what will happen to that information.

But Soren Preibusch, another University of Cambridge researcher who studies online privacy, says it’s often in a company’s best interests to guard consumers’ privacy. He says his own research has shown that consumers are willing to spend much more money on a company’s products when they trust that company to protect their privacy. Sites that were perceived as “privacy-friendly” could sell products at prices an average of 80 percent higher than firms perceived as “privacy-unfriendly,” he found.

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Credit: Carnegie Mellon University

Tagged: Web, privacy, advertising, user interfaces, digital marketing, personal information

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