The Surprising Benefits of Oversharing

In a social media culture that encourages sharing of embarrassing information, revealing too much can benefit individuals but hurt businesses. New research papers from Leslie John and Michael Luca help explain why.
by Michael Blanding

On Facebook and a myriad of other social media platforms, you can find out who your friends are dating, see pictures of their last vacation, and even know what they had for lunch yesterday. It is now becoming more unusual when someone chooses not to divulge their business than when they do.

Two research studies by Harvard Business School faculty explore this brave new world of "oversharing" — asking what it means to organizations and to reputation when we decide to buck the trend and keep personal information, well, personal.

The studies' surprising — and seemingly contradictory — conclusions about the costs of hiding information carry implications for individuals and companies alike. It turns out that who benefits from disclosing information has everything to do with how they reveal it.

Match Game

In What Hiding Reveals, Assistant Professor Leslie John, in the Negotiations, Organizations & Markets (NOM) unit, found that keeping unsavory information to ourselves may not always be in our best interest.

In fact, sometimes people think better of others who reveal ugly truths over those who keep mum.

To come to this conclusion, John and her co-researchers, HBS's Michael I. Norton and Kate Barasz, conducted an experiment asking participants to decide between two different dating partners based on their online profiles. Each profile contained answers to intimate and provocative questions, such as "Have you ever stolen anything worth more than $100?" and "Have you ever neglected to tell a partner about an STD you are currently suffering from?"

New research looks at the benefits and downsides of information sharing. ©iPhoto/rawpixel

Possible answers, given in multiple-choice format, included Never, Once, Sometimes, Frequently, and Choose Not to Answer.

When John and colleagues tested these various conditions, they found that participants were much more likely to choose a dating partner who answered all the questions, rather than someone who chose not to answer. Surprisingly, that was the case even when potential partners answered "frequently" to bad behavior.

"They would rather have someone who disclosed the worst possible thing they could than choose someone who doesn't disclose," says John.

On average, 80 percent of participants chose the "revealer" over the "hider." Even in cases where the respondent admitted to frequently hiding a sexually transmitted disease from a partner, 64 percent of participants chose that person over the person who decided not to answer the STD question.

One explanation for this result may be that subjects assumed that those who chose not to answer were engaging in bad behavior even more often than "frequently"— that is, they inferred an extra answer of "very frequently." When the researchers tested this possibility by asking participants to guess how often they thought the hiders did those things, however, they chose, on average, somewhere between "sometimes" and "frequently," meaning they assumed that they engaged in bad behavior less than the partner who did it "frequently"-yet they still chose the other partner.

"I thought this was a false positive at first," admits John. "But we replicated it many, many times. I was shocked."

The question is, why? In a series of follow-up studies, the researchers determined that the explanation may come down to one word: trust.

Honesty, The Best Policy?

In one experiment, for example, the researchers had participants play a game in which a person is given an amount of money, and then must decide how much of the money to give to a partner. Every dollar participants give is tripled. However, it is the partner who decides how much to give back to them-none, some, or all. Thus the amount of money participants give is heavily determined by how much they trust their partners.

When shown profile questionnaires filled out by their partners (who had been induced to either answer the questions or leave them blank), participants routinely gave less money to those who had chosen not to answer the questions, even compared to those who said they "frequently" tried to gain access to another person's email account, for instance, or faked a sick day at work.

"We like people who are honest," concludes John. "It signals trustworthiness, and that seems to have a positive "halo" effect, such that we are willing to overlook an honest person's bad behavior."

“There may be completely innocuous reasons someone may wish to keep personal information private”

The implication may be that people overcompensate in hiding bad information about themselves.

In another experiment participants were asked whether they would admit that they used drugs on a job application; a different set of participants acting as prospective employers were asked whom they'd rather hire, someone who admitted using drugs, or someone who chose not to answer.

Even though only 23 percent of respondents said they'd admit using drugs, prospective employers found drug users hireable 62 percent of the time, versus only 45 percent of the time for those who chose not to answer that question.

Of course, such honesty has its limits, John hastens to add. "You might not want to say you are a heroin addict," she says. "But if you are trying to decide whether to hide or reveal information, people often have a knee-jerk reaction that they shouldn't say something bad about themselves, when they might be better off being honest."

On the other side, there may be perfectly benign reasons why people might withhold information-from a job application, a dating profile, or a Facebook page-starting with the fact that they don't think it's anyone else's business. In this case, it helps for observers to be aware that hiding information isn't necessarily an admission of guilt.

"As observers, we may be prone to missing opportunities to form friendships or hire people by unfairly inferring [that] they are untrustworthy," she says. "There may be completely innocuous reasons someone may wish to keep personal information private."

Full Disclosure

While John's study shows that people think badly of people who withhold information, another recent HBS study found differently.

In Is No News (Perceived As) Bad News? An Experimental Investigation of Information Exposure, Assistant Professor Michael Luca, also from the NOM unit, found that people are likely to give others the benefit of the doubt when they fail to fully disclose bad news about themselves. While on the face of it, Luca's findings would seem to contradict John's paper, in reality, the two studies complement each other, showing just how subtle can be the way we process information.

Luca, who works a few doors down the hall from John, has studied the ways in which organizations hide information from consumers-sometimes duplicitously. In a previous paper about U.S. News & World Report college rankings of MBA programs, for example, he found a strong link between where a school fell on the rankings and how likely it was to list that ranking on its website.

"Outside of the top 25 programs, business schools with worse rankings become less and less likely to mention them on their websites, and more and more likely to include other information instead," says Luca.

The problem is that in some cases keeping information private can directly harm consumers. After Los Angeles required mandatory hygiene information at restaurants, for example, hygiene rates rose and foodborne illnesses dropped.

"Just by disclosing the information, and letting markets take action, it led to a positive social effect," Luca says. In this case, however, it took the direct intervention of government to persuade restaurants to reveal this information which hadn't been done voluntarily.

According to game theory, however, that shouldn't be necessary. The logic goes like this: The best restaurants or schools should loudly trumpet their A rankings as a matter of course. Then B-ranked restaurants or schools would reveal their rankings, to separate themselves from the Cs. The pattern would continue to the C establishments and so on.

"The theory is that the information would unravel, and everyone but the very lowest grade would have the incentive to disclose," says Luca.

Despite that theory of "information unraveling," however, in reality that is generally not what happens. In the case of restaurants, very few voluntarily disclosed their hygiene ratings, even when they were above average. In order to test why, Luca, along with Ginger Jin of the University of Maryland and Daniel Martin of the Paris School of Economics, set up a simple experiment they called the "disclosure game."

Guessing Game

For the experiment, the researchers separated participants into pairs. One person, the "sender," was randomly assigned a number from 1 to 5, and could choose to reveal or hide that number to the other person, the "receiver." If they chose to hide it, then the receiver tried to guess the number as close as possible, using increments of .5.

Here's the catch: Receivers were paid more money depending on how close they were to the number, while senders were paid more depending on how high the receiver guessed. That meant the senders had more incentive to hide the number when the number was smaller. That's exactly what happened. For number 1, senders only revealed the number 5.7 percent of the time; for 4 or 5, they revealed the number 97.7 percent of the time. For numbers 2 and 3, meanwhile, senders varied, reporting the number 40.8 percent and 88.6 percent of the time, respectively.

Where the experiment gets more interesting, however, is looking at the numbers guessed by the "receivers." While the average non-reported number was 1.584, the average guess was 2.022-meaning that the receivers routinely guessed too high, underestimating the extent to which the "senders" were hiding bad information.

While this experiment was performed in the lab, Luca extrapolates the findings to apply to consumers (receivers), who want to know the true quality of a product, while sellers (senders) hide it from them.

"Customers were not inferring the worst, and sellers take advantage of this," concludes Luca. "They were guessing a higher-quality rating than the actual quality rating." That would explain why information doesn't "unravel" according to game theory predictions, and why companies don't voluntarily release information even when it is not the worst it could be.

“Customers give too much credit to companies for not disclosing information”

"Customers give too much credit to companies for not disclosing information. That was the big takeaway for us," says Luca. "Policymakers need to be more heavy-handed in making sure organizations are disclosing information. And customers should be leery of the sound of silence."

As another example of this phenomenon, Luca points to movie studios that, when they know they have a flop on their hands, withhold movie previews from critics to avoid bad reviews during the critical opening days. Studios trumpet good reviews in their marketing, but of course exclude bad reviews. Customers should understand that no news (or reviews) is bad news in this situation — but oftentimes they ignore the lack of reviews, and flock to opening weekend anyway.

"Consumers should think about what it means when a company is not giving you information — and think about what information they could have given you."

Dogs That Don't Bark

On the face of it, John's and Luca's studies seem to be showing different things. In John's study, people think worse of those who hide information, while in Luca's, they seem to give more benefit of the doubt to them than they should. The discrepancy may come from just how apparent it is that information is being hidden.

"People don't notice the dog that doesn't bark," says John. By including the "choose not to answer" choice in their study, she and her colleagues intentionally made it clear that the person who answered the profile was hiding information-leading observers to conclude that the individual was less trustworthy.

In the case of restaurants, movies, or college rankings, on the other hand, consumers may not realize that information is being withheld from them. "If restaurants were required to say that they were choosing not to reveal their hygiene [rating], I think it would be a day before everyone would stop going," says Luca. Of course, requiring restaurants to reveal that they are choosing not to reveal is probably just as difficult as requiring them to reveal in the first place.

The bigger takeaway from both studies may be that it pays for consumers to be aware of the information they should be looking for — whether that means going directly to U.S. News & World Report for the complete list of college rankings or looking up film reviews on Rotten Tomatoes — rather than just considering information a company provides. As for that organization and person choosing not to answer a question, they may very well be hiding something. Or they may just be choosing not to answer.

About the Author

Michael Blanding is a writer based in Brookline, Massachusetts

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In order to be published, comments must be on-topic and civil in tone, with no name calling or personal attacks. Your comment may be edited for clarity and length.
    • Jim Govert
    • Consultant/Attorney, Compass Rose Consulting
    The headline is misleading -- the benefits of oversharing were not remotely demonstrated in the dating profile study. What was shown, at best, is that if you are in a social media environment where a certain amount of sharing or oversharing is expected, then electing not to share makes you worthy of suspicion. Hardly shocking.

    To show that oversharing has benefits in general versus not sharing, you'd have to compare the over sharers with dating profiles to folks who elected to date without having a social media component at all. Much harder to test, admittedly. But this "study' essentially says that the folks who show up at the potluck without a dish are viewed unfavorably. No doubt.
    • Taat Subekti
    • Chairman, Dharma Shanti Educational Foundation
    In individual level, it may be true for the social media communities in the US. But I am not sure about the social media communities in Indonesia. In Indonesia, individuals of social media communities apparently would prefer to expose other people negative sides, but not to reveal their own bad side.

    However, in corporate level, honesty in revealing weakness of its product(s), gain more appreciation here, in Indonesia. On the other side, unfortunately, many corporations use individual members of social media communities to attack other corporations' product by revealing the negative side of the product(s).
    • LMW
    • Mom, Mom
    One can hold a simple thing called Individualism to a standard of its own. Use the word variable and add a S. Patience within each of us is quite different so we can't assume we all react the same. I'd like to think if one cared about lots of things the length of variables would go on forever. A little girl said to me "sharing is caring" and I remember looking at her and thinking she is starting off real good. But then there is who cares? Religion points to one guy!
    • Kapil Kumar Sopory
    • Company Secretary, SMEC(India) Private Limited
    This is a very interesting study even though it does not discuss 'oversharing' -the caption - and hence the intended purpose is only revealed by default.
    Everyone has a ' I know, you don't know ' aspect of his/her personality and this contains secrets preserved in the person's conscious/sub-conscious mind, some of which are kept dormant and not repeated even to one's own self. Other than these and particularly when there is a chance (not anticipated) that these could get verified sometime or the other, it is not hiding is not desirable. It is well expressed that hiding can many times be more harmful than revealing. Even when you apply for a job, there is an inbuilt cautionary note that if you do not state facts as they are, you would be fired once something contrary to what is stated (or not stated at all) comes to light subsequently. There could also arise a criminal liability in extreme cases. Hence, transparency is generally advisable as ' honesty is the best policy' eventually.
    At business level, it is acceptable that certain operations- trade secrets- not of course unethical, are hidden . For example, a chef may have developed a special recipe which works like a monopoly and hence leads to spurt in sales. He could keep it a closely guarded secret and there is no harm done. However, if he indulges is practices banned by laws of the land, the processes of hiding would have a suicidal effect.
    In nutshell, due care needs to be exercised; in my view, oversharing also be avoided for you could move in a direction where users of the information may draw conclusions likely lead to negative outcomes for the revealer.
    • Ted
    The description of the guessing game either forgets to mention the rules creating incentive(s) for the sender to share, or the analysis is completely flawed.
    • Jacek/Jack Haciak
    • Consultant, Self-employed
    The basic premise that a proxy measure reveals meaningful data relevant to the reference circumstance is itself fallacious unless the findings include data about the limitations. In this case, the proxy (game) data is assumed to reflect characteristics of the actual reference circumstance without qualification. What should we infer about the author's "hiding" that limitation to the conclusions?
    • Roger Green
    • Retired
    "We like people who are honest," concludes John.

    What an absurd conclusion John has drawn from his data. There is nothing "honest" about hiding one's STD status from a partner, lying to an employer about sick leave, or illicitly trying to hack another person's email account. To prefer persons who disclose such behavior is not to prefer honesty but, rather, to prefer those who supply the currency of gossip: information. A more useful study of social media would focus on why the ability to share gossip--and, therefore, the worship of its currency--is so important to so many people.
    • Ashok Sharma
    • Founder, Ashok Sharma Internet
    In real life the notion of identity is constantly hanging across eras. Now you have learned to live in complete open world thanks courtesy social networks specially Facebook. Business normally used to adopt selective exposures till now as opposed to public which is talking about each and every thing on earth.

    Businesses now must learn to expose information comparable to online public sharing. Internet Existence has to be created and maintained just as we do in real world.

    The identity is getting new meaning with biometrics adaptations. Canada announced human data capture which Indian Aadhaar Uid project is nearing completion. The similar kind of projects are being taken over in all parts of world. The corporate world is simply following the trend not leading it. In my opinion the business leaders must come out with their own social networks for the sake of survival and lead both.

    The oversharing is now way of life, you can't live without it. If you want to enjoy the position comparable to real world position and reputation in online domains calculated, well designed existence under command of an Internet Existence is only way to go further.
    • Tracy Syverain
    Great article. I have always played it very close to the vest when disclosing personal information in the workplace.

    I find the lack of disclosure has hurt me more than helped me, especially in a corporate environment. I suppose now the reason why is, in such a "sterile" locus, a bit of "the dirty truth" rings true, or more true, than the standard banal speak which can come off as whitewash. It could be that oversharing is now a strength and I may be old school in my way of thought that the two should be separate at work - with the exception of having found kindred spirits.

    When interacting with customers, my approach has always leaned towards full disclosure (to the delight of some employers and the chagrin of others). I agree, in terms of trustworthiness, this tactic works best in many cases and not so much in others. I guess one must "feel their way," especially in sales where consumers expect no disclosure and the "opening of the kimono" (be it dirty laundry or otherwise) often comes across, at best, as an appreciable breath of fresh air... or, at worst, premature oversharing.

    So I guess what I am saying is, be you consumer or vendor, the giver or receiver, caveat emptor and honesty is always the best policy, respectively.
    • Dr.Anjali Thapliyal Kaul
    • Social Activist, Pyare Foundation
    The Tittle is really great. In actual if we want to study the societal changes then we have to choose the same kind of pattern. The findings are really surprising.