People Think Secret Information Is Better Information

The recent disclosures about the extent of the NSA’s domestic spying program add to a long history of incidents in which the American public has gained access to information that was once secret. And that’s great. People should have information about what their government is doing. But it’s worth considering whether people are able to make accurate judgements about leaked information. For example, do people perceive the quality of information to be different if the information is secret rather than public?

According to a new study led by the University of Colorado’s Mark Travers, when it comes to foreign policy the answer is yes:

Three experiments demonstrate that in the context of U.S. foreign policy decision making, people infer informational quality from secrecy. In Experiment 1, people weighed secret information more heavily than public information when making recommendations about foreign political candidates. In Experiment 2, people judged information presented in documents ostensibly produced by the Department of State and the National Security Council as being of relatively higher quality when those documents were secret rather than public. Finally, in Experiment 3, people judged a National Security Council document as being of higher quality when presented as a secret document rather than a public document and evaluated others’ decisions more favorably when those decisions were based on secret information.

To be clear, none of the judgments made by participants are inherently “bad” judgments. Placing greater value on secret information may be a useful heuristic in most situations. In fact, the researchers proffer three very legitimate reasons why people tend to be smitten with secret information: 1) Secret information is often more important in strategic situations (e.g. a seller’s preferences in a negotiation), 2) people tend to view their personal secrets as being of greater importance, and thus they may believe the same about other secrets, and 3) governments generally behave as though secret information is more important.

But there are some situations where a heuristic based on secrecy can be a problem. For example, it’s possible for the government to take advantage of leaks.

Our studies imply that, among average U.S. citizens, secret information is used as a cue to infer informational quality. This suggests that when government leaders claim, for example, that secret information indicates that enemy nations are building weapons of mass destruction—and that military intervention is therefore warranted—citizens may be more likely to endorse their government’s position even though there is no opportunity for public vetting of that information.

*Cough* *Iraq* *Cough* *Cough*

Though the study doesn’t shed any light on whether experts exhibit a tendency to over-value secret information, it’s also possible that they could be led astray. For example, if an intelligence officer has a set of policy preferences based on public information, but then encounters a piece of secret information, he may place too much weight on the secret information and alter his preferred policy too much. Obviously foreign policy experts have extensive training and a strong grasp of complex situations, but when you’re dealing with issues important enough to involve secret information any marginal shift away from the optimal policy has the potential to be extremely destructive.

Finally, assuming the findings extend beyond the realm of direct foreign policy, the study emphasizes how important it is for the media to not screw up when given access to secret information. For example, initial reports based on Edward Snowden’s leaks contained  claims about “direct access” that the government and the companies involved continue to deny. However, because the “secret” information in the news articles garners more weight than the public denials, it’s likely that many people will be slow to correct their perceptions of the spying program. The media should always take care not to report inaccurate information, but when the information is purported to be secret, sloppy reporting will be even more harmful.
Travers, M., Van Boven, L., & Judd, C. (2013). The Secrecy Heuristic: Inferring Quality from Secrecy in Foreign Policy Contexts Political Psychology DOI: 10.1111/pops.12042

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