Privacy, Disclosure, and Social Exchange Theory

Jennifer King. Privacy, Disclosure, and Social Exchange Theory. Ph.D Dissertation. Advisor: Deirdre Mulligan. University of California, Berkeley. 2018.


Maintaining the privacy of one’s personal information—one’s choice of when to disclose it and to whom, how one maintains control over it, and the risks of disclosure—is one of the most important social issues of the internet era. For the past decade, privacy researchers have focused on several domains, including: documenting public opinion about privacy attitudes and expectations; understanding how user interfaces affect disclosure; and focusing on understanding interpersonal privacy dynamics within social media settings, to name a few. All of this work shares the goal of furthering our collective understanding of how people think about information privacy in online settings, what they expect when disclosing their personal information, and why they make the disclosure choices they make. A common element missing from the extant  privacy research is an accounting of social structures. More specifically, as researchers consider the various factors that affect personal disclosure, they often do not consider the relationship between the discloser and the recipient, and how aspects of that relationship may directly or indirectly affect one’s decision to disclose. A specific form of relationship I examine here is that between individuals and thecompanies to whom they disclose their personal information.

This dissertation explores how the structure of relationships between individuals and companies influences individuals’ decisions to disclose personal information. I accomplish this though a mixed-methods approach; first, I conducted twenty exploratory qualitative interviews with tenusers of the 23andMe genetic testing service and ten women who used mobile apps to track their pregnancies. I interviewed all twenty participants about their experiences using online search engines. I then conducted three online survey experiments, using a hypothetical wearable fitness device that collects personal information as the premise of the study. The experiments tested a set of hypotheses and further explored themes that emerged from the qualitative research. These studies examine the ways in which the relationship between individuals and the companies they disclose to, and in particular the distribution of power within the relationship, affects the individuals’ decisions to disclose. I use social exchange theory (SET) as the theoretical framework for this inquiry because the transfer of personal information in exchange for a service is an exchange between social actors. Thus, SET provides an empirically tested scaffolding for exploring key features of these relationships and their impact on the normative aspects of exchange that affect disclosure choices, specifically: individuals’  perceptions of trust, fairness, power, and privacy.

This dissertation forges new ground in the analysis of information privacy and personal disclosure. Namely, the results of my mixed-method studies demonstrate the utility of the relational analytic approach for identifying social structural factors that affect personal disclosure. Further,it demonstrates the influence of power on personal disclosure—the extent to which individuals can control the terms under which personal information is exchanged, the options available to them to obtain similar resources elsewhere, how fair the exchange is, and the extent to which individuals benefit from it. This approach yields a different set of insights into the dynamic of personal disclosure and information privacy. It reveals the impact of power differentials on personal disclosure, demonstrating that imbalances in power between individuals and companies can affect individual decisions to disclose.


Last updated:

January 30, 2019