PRIVACY: Don’t Make A Fool Out Of Me

Can the psychology of the “sucker’s game” help explain disappointing consumer behavior toward online privacy?

In her new book, contracts specialist Tess Wilkinson-Ryan dives deep into the “everywhere all the time” dynamic driving our collective need to avoid feeling like we’ve been duped. We’ll do almost anything to avoid the humiliation of winding up as the sucker in any situation — even change our own beliefs.

Some excerpts:

“If you asked me to think very seriously about my values and preferences, specifically with respect to data privacy, I would tell you that data privacy is important to me. Unfortunately, it is also true that I keep agreeing to sell it for basically nothing. One interpretation of my situation is that I am a sucker. I just keep assenting to terrible privacy deals while companies get rich off of my carelessness.

I don’t want to feel like a sucker, though. I value data privacy; I have signed away my rights to data privacy: these two dissonant statements create psychological pressure. That sets up a new situation where I am looking for a way to relieve the cognitive dissonance. The reason the data privacy beliefs feel bad is because the implication is that I am a pawn, giving up something I value for scant rewards. So what can I do?

If I can’t do much about my data privacy — I submit to you that few of us can — and I don’t want to reckon head-on with my fundamental inability to control unseen pernicious forces, there is still one option left for me: on second thought, maybe I don’t care about data privacy as much as I thought? I can’t change the cookies but I can change my beliefs. This is the psychology of cognitive dissonance, which describes the internal pressure to resolve incompatible cognition.

“Being a sucker is almost definitionally a state of cognitive dissonance: (1) This transaction is exploitative of me; and (2) I agreed to it. If these two statements feel bad, and the facts are stuck, it’s the judgment that has to give way. This transaction is fine, not exploitative. This looks like a bad deal, but that’s just how contracts are made these days.”

This book was a real eye-opener. Endless examples of how our very deep-seated, very human revulsion at even the thought of being a sucker shows up in politics, business, and everyday life. The human need to avoid feeling we’ve been duped is so prevalent, so “everywhere,” it fades into the background and we stop noticing it. But this pervasive piece of the human operating system is constantly running in the background, and it pushes us into otherwise difficult-to-explain behavior.

It’s always valuable to know what people are thinking.

Amazon book review:

— Anthony Collette

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