#MeAndMyRights: ​Privacy Gives Us Freedom

Privacy frees us from the constraints of social control. Because of this, it gives us the freedom to think critically, question social rules and debate ideas that might be considered controversial.

The vast majority of us are taught that throwing our rubbish on the floor instead of in the bin is bad. Many people still drop litter on the floor - there’s plenty of evidence in the streets - even though we all know what the rule is. Over the past few years, psychologists have started experimenting with the public to see if they can tackle the problem of littering. In some experiments they displayed pictures of human eyes in prominent places where there were opportunities for people to litter. In other experiments they put pictures of eyes on the litter itself. They compared the results to scenarios where ‘no littering’ signs didn’t include a pictures of eyes. In the situations with human eyes, people were much more likely to put litter in the bin.

Read previous episodes of the #MeAndMyRights series

Why? Because humans tend to obey the rules of our community, especially when we think we are being watched, to avoid being punished in some way by those around us. And the pictures of eyes are enough of a prod to our subconscious that we’re being watched - even if we know it’s not actually true.

Watching eye: social control

Most of these ‘watching eye’ experiments date from the last few years, but they are built on a long line of experiments beginning in the 1930s. Through these experiments, social psychologists were able to find out that when in a group, individuals tend to follow the rules and the opinions of the majority. This phenomenon is called ‘social control’. Simply put, one of the main reasons we follow social rules and tend to follow majority opinion is because of social pressure.

The experiments showed that social control is so powerful that we tend to follow the opinion of the majority, even when that opinion is, objectively speaking, incorrect. For example, in some experiments the psychologists would fill the group with their stooges who were all told to give the same incorrect opinion about which of three lines drawn on a page was the longest. And the new person, who was the true subject of the experiment, usually followed the opinion of the group just to fit in. Over the years, of course, the experiments have become more sophisticated, and look at things like how we express political opinions and beliefs about morality, not just lines on a page.

Read previous episodes of the #MeAndMyRights series

Some of the more recent experiments have looked at what happens to us physically in the brain in these situations. When an individual expresses disagreement with the majority of their group it activates the part of the brain associated with negative emotions. Conversely, when individuals express agreement with the majority it activates the release of oxytocin, the ‘love’ hormone that helps to bond mothers and babies and sexual partners. It looks like we are hard-wired to follow the rules and go along with majority opinion. Possibly because over hundreds of thousands of years humans have evolved to stick together in harmonious groups to enhance our chances of survival and get access to group benefits like protection, food and shelter. Nowadays, having a controversial opinion might mean you get ‘unfriended’ on Facebook. In the distant past it probably meant being kicked out of the group or abandoned by your companions to a lonely death.

Privacy: much more than the right to hide

What does any of this have to do with privacy? Privacy is your ability to control what information you share about yourself and who you share it with. We share information, ideas, opinions, property, personal space and our bodies. We share these things with our partner, family members, friends, classmates, colleagues, acquaintances, strangers and the general public. And while we choose to share different things with different people, we also choose not to share certain things with anyone. When we have control over these choices, we can be said to have privacy. When our control over these choices is taken away from us, our privacy is invaded.

Because privacy gives us a choice over who we share information about ourselves with, it allows us to limit how far we disclose certain information – put otherwise, it allows us to ‘hide’. But privacy is about much more than hiding. It is about creating a space where we have the freedom to exchange information, think and take decisions about our societies and how they are being run.

Privacy gives us freedom from social control. It gives us the freedom to question the opinions, rules, values and traditions that are held by the majority. When no one is watching, or when we are with a trusted group of people, we can share ideas and opinions that we would not dare to do in public. And this is essential for democracy to work properly. Why? More on this next time.

If you’d like more in-depth information or would like to follow up on the evidence and studies we refer to, you can take a look at our full report ‘Security through Human Rights’ here.