The Privacy Paradox: Are we revealing more of ourselves than we prefer?


Latest study results show: Attitudes toward privacy are decisive for sharing behavior on the internet.

Article by Adriana Sofia Palloks (✉

To share or not to share personal data? Users can decide for themselves what information they disclose on the internet. Interestingly, they often share personal information even though they are concerned about their privacy at the same time. This contradictory behavior is called the Privacy Paradox. The study "A longitudinal analysis of the privacy paradox" conducted by Tobias Dienlin from the University of Vienna, Philipp Masur (Vrije Universiteit Amsterdam) and Sabine Trepte (University of Hohenheim) explores attitudes toward privacy and actual online sharing behavior of their sample.

The longitudinal study was implemented between May 2014 and May 2015. A total of 1,403 German participants took part in the survey, which is representative of the German population. These were interviewed three times at six-month intervals on the topics of privacy and their online sharing behavior, with the aim of answering four overarching research questions. First, based on a between-person comparison, how is privacy concern related to the digital dissemination of personal information? Second, does information dissemination turn out to be less than usual when concerns are greater than usual? Third, what are the possible long-term effects? Does concern decrease as more information is shared or vice versa? And fourth, what is the role of attitudes toward privacy in general?

Results reveal that people who are – on average across all three waves – more concerned about their privacy than others are significantly more likely to have a negative attitude toward online dissemination of personal information and, in addition, share less information online. People who are more concerned about their privacy than usual also tend to share less personal information online. In contrast, there are individuals whose positive attitude toward sharing personal information also indicates a higher willingness to share.

Finally, long-term effects could not be detected. Neither, whether a change in privacy concern affects attitudes toward online sharing of personal information, nor, whether changes in attitudes toward online sharing of personal information affect privacy concerns. Furthermore, whether sharing behavior affects attitudes in the long term could also not be demonstrated.

Given the findings, the theory of the Privacy Paradox which states that although people have great concerns about their privacy, they still share a lot of data online, could not be confirmed or demonstrated. "On the contrary, people who were more concerned about their privacy shared less information. And when we asked more specifically about concrete attitudes, we even found strong correlations" says study author Tobias Dienlin. His conclusion is that online behavior seems to be in line with users' attitudes.

Publication details

Dienlin, T., Masur, P. K., & Trepte, S. (2021). A longitudinal analysis of the  privacy paradox. New Media & Society. Advance online publication. doi:10.1177/14614448211016316

Researchers from the University of Vienna, the Vrije Universiteit Amsterdam, and the University of Hohenheim examined the theory of the Privacy Paradox within the scope of their study including 1,403 German participants. This theory states that, although people have concerns about their privacy, they nevertheless share a lot of personal information online. The data stem from a longitudinal study in which a representative sample of the German population (aged 16 and older) was surveyed three times at six-month intervals between May 2014 and May 2015. This study is part of a large-scale research project investigating the development of privacy and self-disclosure, including various other variables. (Image © Pixabay)

Tobias Dienlin is Assistant Professor of Interactive Communication at the Department of Communication. He previously worked at the Department of Media Psychology at University of Hohenheim, where he wrote his Ph.D. on "The Psychology of Privacy". Tobias Dienlin is a trained psychologist and received his diploma at Johannes Gutenberg-University Mainz in 2012. (Image © Tobias Dienlin)