Does psychology explain why people are upset about NSA spying?

8 months ago, I wrote a blog post about how I am more concerned about being hacked by malicious spammers than I am about being spied upon by the NSA. In the year since Snowden, my views haven’t changed much. I understand that it’s a concern but I am more-or-less ambivalent about it [1].

I understand that there is a very vocal segment that protests this invasion of privacy vehemently, but I just can’t get worked up about it.

Why am I so different from this vocal segment? And why does this vocal segment care so much?

The Principle of Scarcity

To answer this, I recently read the book “Influence: The Psychology of Persuasion” by Robert Cialdini. In it, psychologist Robert Cialdini describes six outlining principles about how to persuade people – principles that have proven themselves over and over again. These are not self-help theories but instead theories that have been tested by science.


One of the topics of the book is the Principle of Scarcity. People view potential losses as more impactful than potential gains. This is universally true, we are more concerned about losing something than we are about winning.

Here’s proof. What would you rather have:

  1. Option 1 - A 10% chance of winning $1 million, or
  2. Option 2 - A 100% chance of winning $90,000


If you’re like most people, you probably go with Option 2. However, if you do the math on the expected payout, you multiply the chance of winning by the amount you would win to get the expected winnings. Option 1 has an expected winning of $100,000 (10% x $1,000,000) while Option 2 is $90,000, less than Option 1.

But most of us want to go with the sure thing of Option 2 even though it is less because it is too psychologically painful for us to “lose” the sure thing of $90,000 compared to the mere possibility of $1 million, even if you know the probabilities.

Even if you personally, reading this right now, say to yourself “Well, I know the math. I would certainly go with Option 1” you still have to fight your natural instincts to do this because it feels wrong and you don’t like doing it. Thus, while you may understand the math in this case, be very sure you won’t understand the math in every case, nor in every real world circumstance with deals with the Principle of Scarcity.

The Increasing Value of Time

Another example is the phrase “If it weren’t for the last minute, nothing would ever get done.” This is our tendency to put things off until there is very little time left and then scrambling to complete it. This is known as “hyperbolic discounting.” What is happening is that we, as humans, are not good at anticipating the future but as a deadline becomes nearer and near – and time-to-complete becomes correspondingly more scarce – the value of the thing we are putting off becomes more urgent as the remaining time becomes much more valuable.


Scarcity is increasing value of something.

As opportunities become more scarce, we desire more freedom, and we hate losing the freedoms we already had.

This goes one step further – it is not just a matter of scarcity that makes something that is more desirable, but instead a drop from abundance to scarcity that makes it much more powerful than constant scarcity.

For example, when governments ban books, it is then that people want to read them. And to add to the intensity, if the drop in abundance is because others want the scarce resource, this increases the desirability.

How it Works in Humans

Researchers have tested this – they had volunteers come in and answer some questions and then leave, but on the way out there was a plate of cookies. When there were plenty of cookies, people rated the cookies’ taste as fine. But when there was only a couple of cookies and plenty of crumbs (indicating that there had been a lot of them previously but others had depleted the stock), people rated them even more highly.


This principle of scarcity is hard-wired into our brains.

So what does this have to do with NSA spying?

Here’s what I think – the scarce resource that we thought we had was privacy. Privacy is valuable and we believed that nobody was looking over our shoulder. Who wants the government spying on them? Nobody, that’s who.

However, when the NSA scandal broke, suddenly this resource/freedom we thought we had was virtually non-existent. And we hate losing freedoms we had before. The fact that it was previously abundant due to encryption, and is scarce now (due to government circumventing it) made it that much worse.

And making it even worse is that government wants our privacy! Thus, someone else is stealing something that was ours and that’s what makes it scarce!

And I think that’s why people are so upset – because of the Principle of Scarcity and how we’re hard wired to react to it.

The Roots of the Desire for Privacy

Okay, so maybe we’re hard-wired to react to scarcity. And maybe we’re a little upset because we lost our freedom of privacy.

But why should we even care about privacy at all?

I think it’s because we don’t like being watched. There’s a myth that says that public speaking is our number one fear. Studies are conflicted about this, but it is one of the things that people are afraid of and it ranks very highly, higher than things we should be more afraid of like disease, car accidents, or violence.

So why are we even afraid of public speaking to begin with?


I think it’s hard wired into our brains because we don’t like to be watched. For you see, for hundreds of thousands of years, even millions of years, our ancestors wandered around on the African savannah, looking for game but also just trying to survive. Our ancestors had to work in groups and we would sometimes stalk our game for days or even weeks at a time.


However, humans are not particularly good fighters against any other animal without our tools or the groups of people we hunt with (i.e., working together). While we would hunt other animals, other animals would hunt us. And when they hunted us, they would secretly stare at us first, sizing us up before pouncing.

Eventually, we developed biases in us to dislike being watched because it meant that if we were, we could soon become the prey and would fail to pass on our genetic material. Natural selection favored genes that selected for being aware of being watched and taking steps to correct for it.

We don’t like to be watched without our permission because we have genes that have selected for this personality trait.

Your Brain is not a Lawyer

We sometimes think of ourselves as rational creatures. We have a model of ourselves where our brains are basically like Prosecuting Attorneys and Judges. The prosecuting attorney presents the evidence, the judge weighs it, and then issues a decision. In this way, we are mostly logical creatures; sure, we sometimes make mistakes but for the most part we act in our own best interest.



This was the view before the 1960’s and the rise of modern psychology, and the 1990’s before the rise of behavioral psychology. Not only do we now know that we make cognitive errors all the time but that we are predictably irrational.

Your brain is not an attorney/judge combination that weighs the evidence and makes a careful decision. That happens occasionally but it is not the norm. Instead, you have a limbic system which is the system that reacts and drives your emotions, and a neo-cortex which is the thinking and reasoning part of your brain. And these two are always working together, and sometimes they are conflicting.

We like to think that the logical side wins out over the “emotional” one (the limbic system is far more complex than what I described). What happens in reality is that most of the time, our limbic system has an emotional response to a stimulus (a physical feeling, or a sound, or an idea) and then our neo-cortex brain works to rationalize why we feel the way we feel.

If you ask a person why they took the $90,000 sure thing instead of the $100,000 expected payout (10% chance of $1 million), they may say something like “I can use the $90,000 today and the chances of getting $1 million aren’t worth the risk of losing it.” And that’s close to reality; our limbic brains tell us “Don’t lose the sure thing!” and then our neo-cortexes get on with the work of making up a reason why we are doing the irrational thing.


Putting it All Together

This is why I think (some) people hate the NSA spying scandal so much. We have justified it as they are over-collecting data and it could lead to abuse. While I think that’s possible, I think the disliking of it is because we don’t like being secretly watched by someone. Not being watched by someone is called “privacy” and we hate losing the freedoms we had (or thought we had), and that includes privacy. While we have reasons for disliking it, we come up with these after the fact; we don’t weigh the pros and cons and come to a decision. Instead, we come to a decision and then weigh the pros and cons.[3]

That’s why I think some people are so vocal about NSA spying.

So what about people who don’t seem to react so strongly? I will get to that in a future post.

[1] 10 weeks ago, I had braces put onto my teeth. I’ve never had them done before, that is, I didn’t have them as a kid [2]. Let me tell you, I experience way more angst up to and during that procedure than I ever had thinking about how the NSA might be spying on me.

[2] I’ve needed this procedure for at least a decade. I finally broke down and consented to wearing them for two years.

[3] Yes, this is oversimplified. As it turns out, there are good reasons for being against government over-collection of data just as there are good reasons for there to be a government that runs society.

Comments (2)
  1. Pete Booth says:

    No: its because any sensible person remembers a little history and knows that any government is made up of people who like power over others. A government can quickly change into a draconian dictatorship and it is in this case that if the government can already watch your every move and determine your likes dislikes and preferences or has built up profiles of everyone in the population then the results could be truly terrifying.

    So its an entirely logical fear please don't try and belittle other people's concerns for privacy and make out it some ancient hard-wired neurological flaw in human reasoning. You live in a very young empire. You would do well to remember the average lifetimes of peaceful empires in the past.

  2. Pete Booth says:

    This sums it up nicely – you are trusting the sort of people who do this:…/exclusive-how-mi5-blackmails-british-muslims-1688618.html

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