By: Diane Stirling
(315) 443-8975

Have you ever posted something on Facebook that you later came to regret?

If so, you might make a good study subject for—or at least be interested in the findings of – research that is being conducted by a School of Information Studies (iSchool) faculty member.

Assistant Professor Yang Wang has been awarded a project subcontract to research online privacy behavior and the effects of online “nudging” tools. The project grant of $17,316 continues his research relationship with the CyLab at Carnegie Mellon University (CMU), where Wang worked for two years before coming to Syracuse University. This is part of the CMU project titled “Nudging Users Toward Privacy” funded by the National Science Foundation (NSF).

Two concepts from the field of behavioral economics underpin the study, Wang explained. “Nudging” holds that humans are sometimes not rational thinkers. Rather, they have systematic and predictable cognitive and behavioral biases in the way they make rational decisions, and those decisions can be influenced.  In hyperbolic time discounting, it’s known that humans tend to overestimate immediate positive benefits of an action and underestimate an action’s negative future consequences–lessons many people have learned the hard way on social media after posting things “in the heat of the moment,” Wang explained. “People tend to overvalue immediate gratification but tend not to think about the long-term significance of their decisions, so that’s what we set out to study,” he said.

The grant will fund experiments expanding earlier studies. Adult volunteer subjects participating in these longitudinal field experiments will be shown nudging designs that remind, advise, and warn them of potential privacy concerns and consequences regarding the content they are about to post to Facebook —before they actually do so.

The nudging designs include, for example, a randomly-selected display of the photos of Facebook friends (contacts who could see the posted content), and a 10-second delay mechanism allowing writers to edit, cancel, or approve of their submission, in advance of its actual posting.

Their effects may work much the way electronic speed-detector signs placed along roadways impact drivers, creating more awareness of possible consequences, Wang explained. The study then looks at the impact of the tools’ presence on decisions made and behaviors changed because of that awareness. That might include how frequently posts are made, the topics and kinds of comments and materials posted, how often people change their privacy settings, and how often they edit and delete previous content, the professor said.

Wang said preliminary study results indicate that nudge cues don’t have the same impact on all users, although some people have undertaken positive behavioral changes because of the nudges. “In particular, the time delay does seem to give people a second chance to pause and rethink,” Wang said. In exit interviews, some posters admit that they cleaned out their friends list after being made aware of the range of people who could see their posts, he noted.

The studies are producing encouraging results, according to Wang. “We want to continue to improve the nudge designs based on feedback from users. We’ll keep running longitudinal field experiments and hopefully be able to design something that will be effective in impacting  behavior. We have seen some evidence that these are effective, but it’s still too early to say this has statistically significant effects in the larger population,” he concluded.