In our previous post, we discussed the importance of privacy in e-commerce. To effectively persuade people to make active changes to their online behaviour, it is necessary to look at the psychological functions of privacy. This is particularly pertinent in this era of social media connectedness, mass surveillance, and the permanence of our electronic footprint.

Environmental psychology identifies four different states of privacy and Big Data threatens them all:

  • Solitude refers to the commonplace notion of privacy – the opportunity to separate oneself from others and be free from observation.
  • Intimacy is the freedom to be alone with those you choose, without interference from unwanted others, choosing who you surround yourself with.
  • Anonymity describes the freedom to be in public but still be free from identification or surveillance by others. The ability to get away from social pressures and recover from social injuries.
  • Reserve occurs when the individual’s need to limit communication about themself is protected by the cooperation of those around them. The ability to limit what we tell others.

Personal privacy is necessary for maintaining emotional wellbeing. It works as a boundary control process - how we control the access that others have to ourselves or our groups. Westin suggests that privacy is responsible for maintaining personal autonomy, emotional release, self-evaluation, and limited and protected communication. Privacy helps us to manage our social interactions by maintaining order and avoiding conflict. Maintaining a sense of control over our actions is vital to maintaining a sense of self. Losing this sense of self can result in increased levels of generalised anxiety, low self-esteem, depression, a loss of self-confidence, social anxiety, isolation, chronic loneliness, hindering our ability to connect with others and in turn, increase reliance on online communication.

People’s concerns about privacy rarely translate into protective behaviours - the privacy paradox.

In daily life, we like to keep some information to ourselves. However, lack of education and the normalisation and defence of tracking has led people to develop a specific type of cognitive dissonance where they lose their standards for privacy when using the internet. Some people are more cautious online than others, which may be due to individual differences to privacy dispositions. This acts as a generalised predictor of privacy behaviour across domains and technologies. Concern for privacy has even been linked to personality traits such as agreeableness and appraisal of threats. Nevertheless, even though most people are irritated by tracking and the seemingly permanent targeted advertisements on every website, it hasn’t changed much online behaviour. People’s concerns about privacy rarely translate into protective behaviours - the privacy paradox. By highlighting the negative consequences of losing privacy, we hope to change this.

There is no doubt that both consumers and corporations need to put more emphasis on looking after personal data. Whilst the past few years have seen noticeable developments in regulations and awareness, these are meaningless until the everyday consumer understands the importance of maintaining a sense of privacy both online and off. It is equally as important that the corporations and retailers develop an understanding of privacy beyond just offering a checkbox and following the guidelines to avoid the repercussions. By focusing on the actual psychological needs of their customers, this can improve brand loyalty and customer satisfaction.