The choice to share private information about ourselves with someone else is often framed as a strategic decision: We weigh the risks to our reputation against the potential benefits of social connection.
But this framework doesn’t explain why people are so often willing to share information that threatens their own interests, and that they later rue revealing. In fact, in one study, 21% of participants reported regretting a post they had made on Facebook, often because they failed to consider the potential consequences of their disclosure.
The decision to share personal information may boil down to a battle between the drive for privacy and the drive to disclose, according to an article recently published in Current Directions in Psychological Science.
“If we assume disclosure is a strategic weighing of cost and benefits, it would have to be a severe miscalculation on the person’s part to reveal certain information,” said behavioral researcher Erin Carbone, who coauthored the article with her Carnegie Mellon University colleague, APS Fellow George Loewenstein in an interview with APS. “More likely, we might think of some instances of disclosure as involving something else, something like a drive.”
Unlike the cold logic of strategic decision-making, a drive is an emotional, compulsive process that can require significant willpower to resist, even when sharing information is likely to result in negative repercussions, Carbone and Loewenstein wrote. There is even experimental evidence for a “fever model” of disclosure, in which people become more likely to disclose information as their emotional arousal increases, whether because of the feelings prompted by a film clip or the emotional weight of an autobiographical memory, the researchers noted. Disclosure may also function as a way of regulating our emotional response to high-arousal situations.
But whereas drives like hunger and thirst evolved to help satisfy individuals’ need to consume enough calories and water to survive, the drive to disclose may have evolved primarily to improve collective survival by increasing a group’s access to information, Carbone and Loewenstein suggest. Sharing information about ourselves—or about others in the form of gossip—can help increase a group’s chances of surviving in new environments, discourage unwanted social behaviors, and even contribute to cultural evolution, the researchers explained.
“We as people seem to be hardwired to share information with others and it might be that we evolved this need as a benefit to the group,” Carbone said. “We disclose information and experience a visceral desire to disclose information even if it no longer serves that original evolutionary purpose.”
Viewing disclosure as a drive can also help us understand why people sometimes choose to “overshare” on social media.
“It’s so relevant in the age of social media. We live our lives online and the drive to disclose is so consequential now because what we share is often very public and permanent,” Carbone explained.
Carbone said she would like to develop a more complete model of the contextual and interpersonal factors that influence peoples’ desire to share information, as well as their ability to suppress the desire to disclose.
Feedback on this article? Email firstname.lastname@example.org or login to comment.
Carbone, E., & Loewenstein, G. (2023). Privacy preferences and the drive to disclose. Current Directions in Psychological Science, 32(6), 508–514. https://doi.org/10.1177/09637214231196097