Anonymity is an increasingly salient part of life in the 21st century. Globalization has helped depersonalize much of our trade and many of our commercial transactions. Urbanization continues to pull people into densely populated cities, where they may be less likely to know their neighbors than residents of more rural communities. And the ever-growing portion of our interactions that take place online are marked by our ignorance of who exactly is sitting at the other keyboard sharing a piece of news, offering a bit of advice, or starting an argument.

Anonymity is desirable in some contexts and can be an important aspect of personal privacy, but it also has a dark side: research has found, for instance, that anonymity can encourage dishonesty and other antisocial behavior.

But it’s possible to change how anonymous we feel even without changing how anonymous we are, according to Chicago Booth’s Anuj K. Shah and Penn State postdoctoral scholar Michael LaForest. In a series of experiments in the lab and a follow-up experiment in the field, they find that when people have more information about a stranger, they expect the stranger to know more about them too—an effect with such potency that it may even help reduce crime.

Shah and LaForest designed their experiments to explore people’s expectation of “social symmetry”—the idea that a relationship between two people will be balanced along given dimensions. For example, if Person A feels friendship toward Person B, you might have a default expectation that Person B feels a similar degree of friendship for Person A. “Although people can recognize that asymmetric ties exist, doing so requires greater cognitive effort,” the researchers write.

Shah and LaForest tested the social-symmetry assumption to see how acquiring information about a stranger affects how well we think the stranger knows us. In nine laboratory experiments, they told participants they had been paired with a partner—though in reality, there was no partner—with whom they would interact online. Participants were then asked to share information about themselves as part of an icebreaker exercise.

In one set of experiments, participants were asked to provide mundane and minimally informative details about their lives, such as their marital or employment status. Some received similar information about their “partner”—the responses were preprogrammed and randomly generated—and some did not. Those who received information felt their partner knew them better, relative to those who didn’t receive information.

A crime deterrent?

When residents of New York City housing developments were given information about the officers who patrolled their neighborhoods, they were more likely to believe that these officers would know if they committed a crime. Crime dropped both in the developments themselves and the immediate areas.

In other cases, participants were instructed to tell their partner four truths and one lie about themselves. Those who received information about their fictitious partner (again, preprogrammed responses) thought their partner would be better able to detect their lies. Participants in other experiments, given a monetary incentive to lie but warned that their partner would flag suspected dishonesty, were less likely to lie when they received information about their partner. The less anonymous participants felt, the less likely they were to lie.

Probing the assumption of social symmetry and its implications for anonymity in a real-life setting, Shah and LaForest sent mailers to residents of some New York City Housing Authority housing developments, providing prosaic personal information about neighborhood coordination officers, who patrolled the developments as part of a community policing program. In surveys taken two months after the mailers were sent, residents of developments that received the information thought it was more likely their NCO would know if they committed a crime than did residents of developments that didn’t receive the mailers.

The researchers further find that in the three-month period after the mailers were sent, crime dropped in and around the developments that received them, relative to those that didn’t. The effect was modest—a 6 percent drop in the immediate vicinity of the development and a 7 percent drop within a slightly larger radius—but reliable. And this reduction was in line with the typical results of hotspot policing initiatives that entail amplifying police presence in particular areas of concern.

Shah points out that the effect of the treatment faded quickly, and cautions that the mailers in themselves are not necessarily a crime-prevention strategy. “I wouldn’t look at our field experiment as testing a ready-to-go intervention,” he says. “I really think of it as giving some insight into a specific component that’s already there in lots of community policing initiatives but has never really been evaluated on its own, which is just, what is the effect of knowing more about your neighborhood officers?”

“These results suggest an interesting wrinkle in the psychology of anonymity and social interactions,” Shah and LaForest write of the cumulative findings of their experiments. Shah doesn’t speculate on how the findings might apply in other contexts, but he points out that social media allows people to gather information about others in a way that blurs the line between acquaintance and stranger. When you check a new colleague’s LinkedIn profile before meeting for the first time, you may be trying to get to know the person a little better. But, the research suggests, you may come away feeling, and acting, as though your colleague knows you a little better too.

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