Monday, January 18, 2016

Sharing is Caring, Oversharing is Annoying: On the Benefits and Costs of Self-Disclosure

Social media has made it easier than ever to share information about oneself. But this concept, known as self-disclosure, has been an area of research since long before Facebook profiles and online dating. This research shows that self-disclosure can have positive effects on relationships, by increasing feelings of intimacy, and decreasing uncertainty in the relationship. However, this research also suggests a cost of revealing too much: for instance, sharing too much information can make you seem self-centered, and revealing negative information (like that you're actually a Donald Trump supporter) about oneself decreases liking.

In fact, a semi-recent post on Psychology Today summarizes self-disclosure research, and identifies some examples of what not to share: too much negativity or whining, and insignificant details (but only with people you interact with a great deal - those people you never talk to love knowing what you ate for breakfast).

That's why the findings a recent study on nondisclosure are so surprising. Nondisclosure means refusing to provide information or answer questions about oneself. The study found that people who refused to answer questions for a dating profile, trust exercise, and job application were less date worthy, trustworthy, or hirable, than people who answered the questions, even when the people answered in really terrible ways.

Some example questions include: Have you ever stolen anything worth more than $100? Have you ever neglected to tell a partner about an STD you are currently suffering from? Have you ever had a fantasy of doing something terrible (e.g., torture) to somebody?

People were more likely to want to date, trust, or hire someone who answered those questions above, even if the answer was "Frequently" for all them, than someone who selected "Refuse to answer."

To be fair, the study looked like a forced choice situation. Honestly, if faced with someone who "frequently" fails to tell partners about a current STD, and someone who takes the 5th on that question, I'd probably choose option 3: staying at home with a good book and a large glass of beer. But it's possible that participants were not given that option or assumed they had to make a choice.

However, the participants of the study also rated the candidates on various characteristics, such as trustworthiness. Even though, for the example questions above, at least two deal with lying (stealing something and neglecting to tell a partner about an STD). So apparently lying liars who fess up on questionnaire are more trustworthy than withholding liars.

Perhaps one reason for this finding is the fact that participants were being asked to evaluate others. When we're evaluating someone, we want to obtain as much as information as we can. And if we don't have a lot of information on someone, we start using the most insignificant information to fill in the details; this is also when we are most likely to use stereotypes and other biases. In jury decision making research, this is known as the liberation hypothesis - when evidence against the defendant is strong (clearly favors guilty) or weak (clearly favors not guilty), we decide based on evidence, but when evidence is ambiguous, we begin using "extralegal" information.

Arguably the same things happens when we evaluate people in other contexts. And when you're deciding between two candidates who are very similar, the characteristic that differentiates them is the only additional information you have - in this case, the only thing that differentiated the two candidates was whether they answered all questions or skipped some.

It would be interesting to see this research conducted in a more real-life setting and/or with other potential candidates to compare against. It also would be interesting to examine other factors - for instance, perhaps the candidate who answered all questions was viewed as feeling guilty about these actions. That is, maybe the participants perceived the candidate fessed up because he/she does not plan on doing it again. I know many people who fess up to something with every intention of doing it again, but it seems like the purpose of fessing up is to lead the other to believe one is willing to change.

Or there could be other factors that explain these findings. What do you think is going on here?

Thoughtfully yours,

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