Why People Give More Info to Shady Websites

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LWA-Paul Chmielowiec / CORBIS

If you're looking to glean sensitive information from consumers, design a crappy-looking website, says a new study that will be published in an upcoming issue of the Journal of Consumer Research. The study found that survey respondents were more likely to admit to engaging in questionable behaviors — trying cocaine, watching someone undress without their knowledge, driving drunk — if they were asked about their habits on a crude, unprofessional-looking website. Even though subjects admitted they felt the primitive Web page was less secure, they were more willing to spill secrets to a site that is less likely to keep them secret.

So why are Web users dumb enough to hand over info to prying marketers, phishers and scammers? "When sites come across as strange and frivolous, people let their guard down," says Leslie John, a doctoral student in behavioral decision theory at Carnegie Mellon University and lead author of the study. "They don't think about privacy."

The study asked 200 students from Carnegie Mellon a series of 15 invasive questions, such as "Have you ever looked at pornographic material?" and "Have you ever sold marijuana (i.e. pot, weed) to someone?" Other questions pertained to using sex toys and snooping in other people's e-mail accounts. About a third of the participants received these questions from a flimsy site done in a red font, with a devil logo and an inscription reading, "How BAD Are U???" on the top. Others were asked the questions from a site titled "Carnegie Mellon University Executive Council Survey on Ethical Behaviors," which included the Carnegie Mellon seal and a black font. Subjects who answered the questions on the devil site were nearly twice as likely to admit engaging in shady behavior than those answering the survey on the Carnegie Mellon site.

It stands to reason, of course, that at least some of the Carnegie Mellon students would hesitate telling their school's "Executive Council" that they've taken nude pictures of themselves. To account for the possibility that students answering the survey on the "professional" site were intimidated by the school seal, the researchers also set up a "baseline" scenario: about a third of the subjects answered the questions on a vanilla site with no logos or embellishments, simply titled "Survey of Student Behaviors." The devil-site respondents were 1.74 times as likely than those subjects to admit to bad behavior.

Perhaps influenced by the devil logo and "How BAD Are U???" tease, students who answered the questions on the more frivolous Web page could have been exaggerating their naughty behavior. Some of the differences were striking. On the unprofessional site, for example, 19.7% of the respondents said they had watched someone undress without their knowledge. Only 4.7% of those on the professional page made the same admission.

But follow-up research revealed that those who took the devil survey reported that they were not more likely to answer "yes" to behaviors they had not engaged in. Those who took the Carnegie Mellon survey, however, said they were much more likely to hide the truth — to say they hadn't tried cocaine when they had — than those in the devil scenario. In other words, subjects withheld private information from an official-looking website that a rational consumer could trust to protect it. At the same time, they were significantly more willing to cede their privacy to a site that the same rational consumer shouldn't trust at all.

"You would never reveal sensitive information to a street urchin lurking on the corner," notes John. "Over the course of time, basic rules of personal interaction have been ingrained into our brains. But we haven't learned 'Don't talk to strangers' on the Web."