Media Technology MSc

MSc Thesis


Privacy for Burdened Minds: Exploring the Effects of Online Privacy Trade-offs on Cognitive Bandwidth


Wouter Moraal




This research project has been trying to connect theories and findings from both the research on economic trade-offs and online privacy trade-offs. Within these fields it was found that monetary trade-offs can limit cognitive function under certain conditions, and that limited cognitive function can result in higher disclosure of personal information online. Thus, it is explored if online trade-offs involving privacy could result in a negative spiral of increasing privacy concerns, limited cognitive function and subsequently higher information disclosure, basically forming a ‘privacy trap’ alike the much discussed ‘poverty trap’. Using an experimental approach it is explored how online privacy trade-offs are able to limit cognitive bandwidth and cause cognitive scarcity. The cognitive function of inhibitory control is used as a measurement of cognitive bandwidth. Data were collected using an online survey including a hypothetical scenario, several measurement scales and an embedded Simon task. Participants (n=104) could be classified into three groups: associates of a privacy advocacy group, a Bachelor of Arts class, and a mixed group of co-students, family and friends of the author. The results of the study show no significant effect of the hypothesized variables on cognitive bandwidth. However, age is found to negatively affect inhibitory control and positively affect privacy risk belief. Information sensitivity and personal experiences of privacy violation have a positive effect on risk belief. Risk belief positively affects willingness to pay for non-disclosure, i.e. the degree to which participants were willing to pay a hypothetical sum of money to protect their privacy. Belief of personal protection sufficiency seems to somewhat positively affect risk belief and willingness to pay. Additionally, mediatory relationships between certain variables were discovered. At a methodological level, this research indicates that willingness to pay could be used as an alternative measure to behavioural intention scales in online privacy trade-offs. Lastly, a few methodological improvements are recommended for future research into the aspects of online trade-offs involving privacy.


Online Privacy Trade-offs, Cognitive Scarcity, Inhibitory Control, Information Sensitivity, Risk Belief.


Full Reference

Wouter Moraal, "Privacy for Burdened Minds: Exploring the Effects of Online Privacy Trade-offs on Cognitive Bandwidth", Master's Thesis for the Media Technology programme, Leiden University (The Netherlands), 2018