Here we have two HBS research studies looking at information disclosure/hiding in the online world, and the audience’s attribution of acceptability that follows when they recognize that some information is perhaps being hidden (or not).
Despite the author’s best efforts, I am not sure a clear conclusion emerges from these studies but they do ask some very interesting questions that communicators might like to ponder.
“On the face of it, John’s and Luca’s studies seem to be showing different things. In John’s study, people think worse of those who hide information, while in Luca’s, they seem to give more benefit of the doubt to them than they should. The discrepancy may come from just how apparent it is that information is being hidden.
“People don’t notice the dog that doesn’t bark,” says John. By including the “choose not to answer” choice in their study, she and her colleagues intentionally made it clear that the person who answered the profile was hiding information-leading observers to conclude that the individual was less trustworthy.
In the case of restaurants, movies, or college rankings, on the other hand, consumers may not realize that information is being withheld from them. “If restaurants were required to say that they were choosing not to reveal their hygiene [rating], I think it would be a day before everyone would stop going,” says Luca. Of course, requiring restaurants to reveal that they are choosing not to reveal is probably just as difficult as requiring them to reveal in the first place.
The bigger takeaway from both studies may be that it pays for consumers to be aware of the information they should be looking for — whether that means going directly to U.S. News & World Report for the complete list of college rankings or looking up film reviews on Rotten Tomatoes — rather than just considering information a company provides. As for that organization and person choosing not to answer a question, they may very well be hiding something. Or they may just be choosing not to answer.”