Alternative Truths

The unexpected truths about judgment and decision making.

Why Politicians (and the Rest of Us) Sometimes Say Too Much

Why might politicians sometimes share too much information?

Humans are like other animals in many respects, but we depart from the rest of the animal kingdom when we engage in conversation. It's not that other animals fail to communicate at all, but we're unique in sharing our thoughts, intentions, and beliefs through speech.

Some people disclose more about themselves than others do, but we're universally driven to self-disclose--to "make ourselves known to others." Just as other human drives like hunger, aggression, and sexual appetite sometimes lead us astray, our tendency to ‘overshare' occasionally lands us in hot water.

Examples of oversharing abound. Over the past four months, Jeremy Stahl, a writer for Slate, has assembled a collection of gaffes uttered by Vice President Joe Biden. These so-called Bidenisms often betray a lack of self-censorship. For example, in November last year, the Vice President denied his intention to run for the presidency one day by telling a group of young supporters that he'd "rather be at home making love to [his] wife while [his] children are asleep."

Biden isn't the only politician to say too much too often too clumsily. The term Bidenism was modeled on the term Bushism, coined to describe President George W. Bush's string of verbal blunders. Lamenting the tyranny of rising medical insurance rates, in 2004 President Bush noted that, "Too many good docs are getting out of the business. Too many OB-GYNs aren't able to practice their love with women all across this country." A year earlier, Bush betrayed a vein of unpresidential aggression when he suggested that Iraqi insurgents who planned to attack U.S. troops should "bring it on."

Prominent politicians are in the unfortunate position of having their faux pas recorded and replayed ad nauseum, but the rest of us are just as guilty of oversharing. The intuitive psychologists at Google seemed to recognize this when they released Gmail Goggles in late 2008. Gmail Goggles are designed to thwart our attempts to send late-night drunken emails that we're likely to regret in the morning. The Gmail app refuses to send emails during the high-risk late night hours unless the sender completes five basic math problems. Simply put, if you're unable to determine that 37 plus 19 equals 56, you're probably too drunk to evaluate the wisdom of sharing what you're typing.

Gmail Goggles seem to be on the right track. In a series of studies, my colleague Danny Oppenheimer and I found that people self-disclose more freely when the path to disclosure is too slippery--but add a mental roadblock akin to math problems, and the rate of disclosure drops dramatically. These roadblocks can take many forms, some of them far subtler than brain teasers. In one study we asked people whether they exhibit 33 common human foibles, like occasionally telling a lie, occasionally gossiping, and occasionally trying to get even. Everyone's guilty of these socially undesirable behaviors sometimes, so the honest response is to admit that you do, in fact, occasionally lie, gossip, and try to get even. (These items are taken from the Marlowe-Crowne Social Desirability Scale, which is designed to identify people who are so sensitive to societal concerns that they can't be relied on to respond to questionnaires honestly.) For half the people, the scale was written in a clear font, much like the font you're reading now. For these people, the experience of answering the scale was free of mental roadblocks--it was, in other words, a slippery mental process. For the remaining people, the scale was written in a light grey font that was more difficult to read. This unclear font, though more subtle than math problems, served as our mental roadblock. We expected people to admit to fewer foibles when they experienced some difficulty reading the questionnaire--and that's exactly what we found. On average, the people who read the clear questionnaire confessed to committing 14 of the 33 undesirable behaviors, but those who read the unclear questionnaire only admitted to committing 11 of the 33 behaviors.

Mental roadblocks also exist in the world beyond psychology labs, and we wanted to show that they similarly dampen how willing people are to self-disclose. It takes only a minute to see that people are itching to disclose their thoughts, beliefs, and desires on social networking sites like Facebook and MySpace. The same is true of lesser-known online confessions sites, like Group Hug, where people anonymously post confessions ranging from the relatively mild ("I'm happy. And I'm confident") to the strikingly open ("I think I might be gay, but I'm really worried about how my family and others will think of me"). Until August 2008, the Group Hug site was difficult to read because the confessions were written in light grey font against a dark grey background--so, people who visited the site were met with a mental roadblock. Then, the site's creator changed the site's format so the confessions were written in the much easier to read combination of black font against a white background.  (You can see samples of the clear and unclear Group Hug website formats below.) We gathered 450 confessions, some of them written when the site was difficult to read and some written when the site was easier to read, and asked a group of undergraduate students to indicate how embarrassed they would be if forced to make each confession. Just as we found in the lab, the confessions were a lot more disclosing and embarrassing when the site was clearer, and the mental roadblock had been removed. Again, people seemed to disclose revealing information about themselves more readily in the absence of mental roadblocks.

These results are troubling. On the one hand, identity theft and credit card fraud increasingly plague the commercial landscape, and on the other hand, it's becoming easier and easier to disclose sensitive information online. In the early 1900s, people spent hours penning carefully-worded letters that traveled for weeks before reaching their intended recipients. Typewriters and word-processors simplified the process of interpersonal communication, and the advent of email removed most of the remaining roadblocks. Today, without thinking much at all, we broadcast tweets of 140 characters or fewer to unknowably vast audiences. As the roadblocks that once reminded us to disclose sparingly crumble, we're ever more vulnerable to the epidemic of sharing too much with too little forethought.

Adam Alter is an Assistant Professor of Marketing at New York University Stern School of Business.

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