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Tuesday TL Teardown: Saying No

Why do we say “yes” to doing things that aren’t in our best interest?

If you have this problem, you’re not alone: Almost everyone finds it difficult to say no when authority figures ask them for something — even when they’ve been advised they can refuse the request.

That’s the upshot of a fascinating piece of almost researcher thought leadership in The New York Times by Roseanna Sommers, a lecturer at the University of Chicago Law School, and Vanessa K. Bohns, associate professor of organizational behavior at Cornell’s School of Industrial and Labor Relations.

I’m calling “Would You Let the Police Search Your Phone” “almost thought leadership” because its urgency flows in large part from an editing choice as well as the frame in which the Times situates it — a framing that leaves readers with far less of a solution than even the underlying research on which its based.

That move inverts the normal course of researcher thought leadership content, which almost always draws stronger conclusions and recommendations than peer-reviewed research papers dare to.

Here’s that frame: “Would You Let the Police Search Your Phone” is part of the Times “The Privacy Project,” an ongoing series of feature stories, news analyses and opinion pieces about privacy issues in the digital age.

Almost all of the content in “The Privacy Project” is meant to evoke a deep sense of unease in readers about our new world of omnipresent surveillance and predictive algorithms that track and anticipate our every tendency…even those of which we aren’t conscious.

No surprise, then, that Times editors would ask Sommers and Bohns to spend the bulk of this piece explaining their new research on our almost reflexive willingness to comply with authority’s requests.

And they do a great job of it. Here’s the second paragraph — the nut graf, as journalists call it, with the hook to keep you reading:

A key question in so-called “consent search” cases is why people so readily agree to allow intrusions into their privacy. The answer, as we argue in a forthcoming article in The Yale Law Journal, is that psychologically, it’s much harder to refuse consent than it seems. The degree of pressure needed to get people to comply is shockingly minimal — and our ability to recognize this fact is limited.

The legal standard for voluntary consent searches, Sommers and Bohns tell us, is based on “where a reasonable person would have felt free to refuse the officers’ request.” And police are judged to have adhered to that standard if the request was not accompanied by “clear markers of coercion” — phrased as a demand instead of a question, for instance, or while brandishing a weapon.

But Sommers and Bohns argue that their new research shows we fold far sooner than that:

“It takes much less pressure than it seems to secure people’s acquiescence. People don’t need to use weapons to get people to accede to their requests; they just need to ask. Our research shows that a simple, polite face-to-face request is harder to refuse than we think.”

In one study, while only 28 percent of one group of subjects say “they would yield their phone to a stranger” for a search, 97 percent of another group of subjects actually unlock their phones and hand them over to the researchers when asked to do so. Telling subjects they had “the right to refuse” their request for the phone didn’t change the rates at which the subjects handed over their phone or felt pressured to do so — even though the subjects said they were now more aware that they could refuse.

There’s more to the study, but the conclusion is clear: We vastly understate our willingness to comply with requests from authorities — even if compliance is voluntary.

“Telling people about their rights addresses information deficits, but the real reason people comply is social, not informational. The social imperatives to comply with a police officer’s request persist even when people are properly informed of their rights or given a consent form to sign — or just asked politely.”

That’s an intriguing finding. But within the frame of The Privacy Project, it feels fatalistic — as if our prosocial evolutionary biases render us fatally vulnerable in a world in which “authorities” (the police, websites, Facebook) are asking us to hand over our information as if that’s just good manners.

The actual study goes further in policy prescription. In their abstract, Sommers and Bohns state that their results

“provide support to critics who would like to see consent searches banned or curtailed, as they have been in several states…The results also suggest that a popular reform proposal — requiring police to advise citizens of their right to refuse consent—may have little effect.”

My guess: Downplaying these policy conclusions was a deliberate editorial choice. Doing so takes the piece out of the realm of specific research-to-policy intervention and places it in in support of sinister cultural atmospherics about the general erosion of privacy and individualism — which is arguably the project of “The Privacy Project.”

In fact, before I thought it through, I’ve found myself applying the conclusions of Sommers and Bohns’ piece to all sorts of situations that I’ve interpreted as semi-coercive, whether they involve privacy or not.

Takeaway: There’s a big difference between “we found something” and “we found something and here’s what we need to do about it.” Thought leadership crosses that gap.

So if you’re writing for an editor who asks you to stop short before that crossing, ask what that request might be all about — and feel free to say no.