“I’ve got nothing to hide” – A psychological perspective on the myth of collective privacy

Short thesis

This talk will elaborate underlying psychological processes of the frequently stated explanation "I've got nothing to hide" with regard to privacy-negligent behavior. The core of this statement may be an implicit knowledge structure leading to trust into the concept of “collective privacy”, namely the trust that the privacy of one’s stored data is protected by the noise generated by the mass of all available information.


Despite reports and discussions about data collecting companies and surveillance through governmental institutions, citizens keep using Social Networking Sites (for example) in an unaltered manner. In my dissertation project I elaborated the statement “I’ve got nothing to hide” from a psychological perspective, as this is a frequently mentioned explanation for why online privacy is not handled with greater care.

I argue that the basis of this argument is what psychological research calls a “subjective theory”, namely an intuitive (not necessarily correct) understanding of how online information is handled by other people and institutions. Such subjective theories have the structure of scientific theories, but generally develop on the basis of everyday experiences which – in the case of online communication – may pertain to the experience of information overload (i.e. the experience that the amount of available information extends one’s cognitive capacities). If people project this experience into their potential, unknown audience, they might expect that their own information will vanish in the noise created by the mass of all available data.

This talk will reflect on empirical data from a pertinent project conducted at the research training group 1712/1 “Trust and Communication in a Digitized World” of the German Research Foundation (DFG) in which we investigated the impact of perceived information density onto participants’ audience expectations. The talk will also reflect on the political dimension of such a subjective theory.