Watch Out: The Psychological Effects of Mass Surveillance

computer screen which says big brother is watchingYou’re not paranoid if they really are out to get you. More than 50 years after Ernest Hemingway committed suicide, we know that Hemingway was being tracked and hounded by the FBI, but this revelation seems less significant in a culture dominated by surveillance.

Edward Snowden’s recent revelations about NSA spying have sparked a vigorous public debate, and employers routinely spy on their employees by tracking their email, logging their chats, and checking their Facebooks. Walk down any street or enter any convenience store and the odds are good that there’s a camera filming you. The line between public and private behavior is increasingly blurred. Some people are willing to sacrifice a bit of privacy to feel safer, but what about the psychological effects of all this surveillance?

Decreased Trust in Government

It makes sense that people might feel more afraid of their government when they think they’re being watched, but the effects go deeper. One study found that when people identified with a leader, their trust in that leader actually decreased when they found out they were being watched. Another study found that people’s willingness to put up with surveillance decreases when they realize that they are the ones being watched instead of a mysterious bad guy.

Increased Stress

A sense of privacy can play a significant role in the control people feel over their lives. We all have private thoughts and behaviors that we’d rather keep under wraps, but mass surveillance makes this much more challenging. A hastily typed email message or unfortunate Facebook update can suddenly become public knowledge. As far back as 1996, researchers found that people felt a loss of control when they knew they were being watched.

The mental health effects don’t end there, though. Researchers have found that as surveillance increases, so does anxiety. Anxiety can lead to a host of health conditions, including high blood pressure, obesity, respiratory problems, gastrointestinal problems, and even cancer.

Effects on Relationships

Social networking, email, and text messaging play major roles in helping to maintain relationships with friends and family, especially across geographic distances. When people know they’re being watched, though, they tend to be more circumspect with their communications. What was once a sarcastic inside joke might become something that, taken out of context, reads like a threat. As the zone of privacy around a relationship diminishes, so too might people’s willingness to foster real intimacy and shared understandings.

Conformity

Researchers have known for decades that people tend to conform to what observers expect. In the 1960s, Stanley Milgram demonstrated that research subjects would willingly shock another person—even to the point of putting the person’s life in danger—if told to do so by an authority figure. When people know they’re being watched, they may subtly alter their behavior and communication to meet the expectations of the watcher. For an office worker, this might mean avoiding creative problem-solving. In political life, though, the effects can be even more damaging. The surveillance efforts of dictatorships have traditionally inhibited public involvement in government and shut down opposition. It may be that even in a democracy, surveillance limits dissent.

References:

  1. Anxiety and physical illness. (2012, July). Harvard Health Publications. Retrieved from http://www.health.harvard.edu/newsletters/Harvard_Womens_Health_Watch/2008/July/Anxiety_and_physical_illness
  1. Anxious people more likely to develop aggressive cancer, study finds. (2012, April 26). Metro. Retrieved from http://metro.co.uk/2012/04/26/anxious-people-more-likely-to-develop-aggressive-cancer-study-finds-404181/
  1. Beaumont, P. (n.d.). Fresh claim over role the FBI played in suicide of Ernest Hemingway. The Guardian. Retrieved from http://www.theguardian.com/books/2011/jul/03/fbi-and-ernest-hemingway
  1. Borland, J. (2007, August 08). Maybe surveillance is bad, after all. Wired.com. Retrieved from http://www.wired.com/threatlevel/2007/08/maybe-surveilla/
  1. Smith, M. (1992). Employee stress and health complaints in jobs with and without electronic performance monitoring. Applied Ergonomics23(1), 17-27. doi: 10.1016/0003-6870(92)90006-H
  1. Stanton, J. M., & Barnes-Farrell, J. L. (1996). Effects of electronic performance monitoring on personal control, task satisfaction, and task performance. Journal of Applied Psychology81(6), 738-745. doi: 10.1037//0021-9010.81.6.738
  1. Subašić, E., Reynolds, K. J., Turner, J. C., Veenstra, K. E., & Haslam, S. A. (2011). Leadership, power and the use of surveillance: Implications of shared social identity for leaders’ capacity to influence. The Leadership Quarterly22(1), 170-181. doi: 10.1016/j.leaqua.2010.12.014
  1. York, J. C. (2013, June 25). The chilling effects of surveillance. AlJazeera. Retrieved from http://www.aljazeera.com/indepth/opinion/2013/06/201362574347243214.html

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  • Frank h

    Frank h

    September 16th, 2013 at 10:57 AM

    Could someone explain to me why I should be so afraid of this type of surveillance if I am honestly not doing anything that I would care if anyone sees or not?

  • CC

    CC

    March 12th, 2017 at 4:24 AM

    Do you close the door when you use the bathroom? Do you tell the cashier at the grocery store about the fight you had with your wife this morning? It’s easy to take privacy for granted. And if, like you say, “you have nothing to hide” Then you need to look deeper into what mass surveillance does to a society as a whole. Take apart each of the effects listed in this article and try to imagine how they would play out in society as a whole. I will tell you this, if we were under mass surveillance throughout the 1960’s, 1970’s, and 1980’s I guarantee you there would be no internet right now. Innovation is crippled in a surveillance, police state.

  • Kris

    Kris

    September 17th, 2013 at 3:49 AM

    I am so torn on this issue because I know that for the most part this is for my own good. The cameras are there and put in place to protect me and to provide additional security.
    It also feels a little strange though to have strangers watching my every move and learning more and more about me without necessarily having my consent. I suppose that is the price we sometimes have to pay for living in a society where we expect others to keep us safe, and I guess that this is why some NRA types would then say they would rather just be allowed to do their own things and keep themselves safe on their own terms. But that doesn’t seem like the ebst idea either. I guess that sometimes you have to be willing to give up a few things to receive something like safety in return

  • CC

    CC

    March 12th, 2017 at 4:40 AM

    There are so many quotes that answer your comments. Your words break my heart because you are talking like a slave who is willing to tighten his own chains:
    Benjamin Franklin once said: “Those who would give up essential Liberty, to purchase a little temporary Safety, deserve neither Liberty nor Safety.”
    “Tolerance of intolerance enables oppression.”
    ― DaShanne Stokes

  • Morgan

    Morgan

    September 19th, 2013 at 4:03 AM

    Am I like the only person not thinking baout this?

    I never think about the fact that there are cameras everywhere and I guess that when I do I think about them more in terms of what they are offering me in a good way, which is a sense of safety, and not that someone is using them to spy on me. What do I have to be so paranoid about?

  • Connie

    Connie

    February 3rd, 2014 at 9:29 AM

    I am so astonished that most people think it’s ok that they are losing their privacy. Even if you have nothing to hide, don’t you think it’s just WRONG for your govt to be snooping in your life? What happened to rights? What happened to innocent until proven guilty? If nobody protests all this, you do realize that it will escalate, don’t you? Next thing will be that it will be legal to use this information against you. We have all had experiences where somebody totally misunderstood our meaning of something in a text or email, just because maybe we aren’t as good at expressing ourselves if we’re not in person. So what happens when your govt misunderstands something you typed or did and decides you should go to jail for it? This is just wrong, it is a very slippery slope, and we should all be concerned.

  • Jeff B

    Jeff B

    August 12th, 2014 at 6:00 PM

    Fear. The root of all emotions. Wielded time and again to control humans over the centuries.Fear not who is watching us, but what is watching us.

  • mathieu

    mathieu

    October 27th, 2014 at 4:39 PM

    If theses cameras where there to protect the public, we would have a lots of pervert arrested for child pornography possession or abuse and neglect of children. If the gouvernment was caring about our security they would care about women security and protect them in their home, street and school. Figure-it out, the purpose of the massive surveillance by the NSA is not our protection. It is not about what you have to hide or not.
    Think about it. Why are they spending trillions dollars on recording and watching the world?
    Think about it…

  • jason

    jason

    October 8th, 2016 at 11:42 PM

    Does nobody ever consider that mass surveillance can actually CAUSE mental illness in people because it completely violates your right to privacy even though you are not being criminal. I kind of see the need to share your identity with security or the police if asked to do so….. but why does the general public have the automatic right to see your face when in public. ALSO…… women wear make-up to hide who they really are all the time but I don’t hear anyone complaining about that!!

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