The Nature of Private Information

Over the years I have observed a highly varied landscape in the area of  private information. Certainly some make perfect sense – “I can’t give you my social security number” – yet others leave me personally perplexed – “no one must know what music I like!”. As privacy and the interwoven concept of trust is so intrinsic and integral to our social interactions, I wanted to take some time to ponder the nature of what makes a given subject, experience, or fact private, and why it varies between individuals.

After mulling over this for awhile explanations began to coalesce, and I decided to create a living document to try to outline and better understand this social phenomenon. Your help and insight on this will be greatly appreciate, as I’ve learned that there are very few (if any) social concepts or constructs which could be considered simple, and it’s unreasonable at this point to presume that I can account for all aspects on the first try.

I felt that the simplest way to approach this subject was to identify the fundamental, and often unconscious, motivations involved when we decide that something is private.

  • Please note:
    • Observing that a motivation occurs and listing it here is neither indicative of  approval or disapproval.
    • A given piece of information may fall under more than one of these motivations.
    • Trust exists on a separate axis from these motivations, and can result in sharing even the most private information. Part of trust is wrapped up in the control knowledge of private topics can give over an individual. Not only does the individual in possession of the private piece of information have the power to disclose it, they also often have an increased ability to either connect or harm the individual, and that can be a scary prospect for many.


  • Security:
    • This subset of information is private because it is involved in the protection on personal assets and property, and revealing them would leave us vulnerable to theft.
  • Complicating:
    • Some information, if revealed, will only serve to complicate a situation without adding anything meaningful to the resolution process.
    • Examples: Situations where the information…
      • would cause panic or irrational actions.
      • will pull other unnecessary individuals into a conflict they can’t assist in, or where they’re presence will only be a detriment. This usually manifests as an altercation between two people.
      • will result in a misunderstanding. This usually occurs when the background involved is complex and/or contains elements which are hard to convey, or are potentially controversial.
  • Conflict Avoidance:
    • Some information is considered private because revealing it would precipitate an undesired conflict or exertion.
    • Examples:
      • Controversial opinions
      • Politics
      • Religion
  • Burdening:
    • Some information inherently induces the need for empathy – such as the death of someone close, or a breakup – and can result in undesired feelings of obligation to reciprocate or invest emotionally in someone.
    • Examples:
      • Discussing a painful experience with a stranger or acquaintance.
  • Etiquette:
    • Some information acknowledges ubiquitous experiences that a society has collectively decided not to discuss. Additionally, it’s worth noting that information that’s seen as having a high enough degree of insignificance will been seen as offensive is ask about.
    • Examples of taboo topics:
      • Personal hygiene
      • Sex
      • Bodily functions
    •  Examples of mundane questions on taboo topics:
      • Which hand do you masturbate with?
      • How long was your last poop?
  • Malicious Deception/Obfuscation
    • Sometimes individuals keep information private so they can fabricate or manipulate the truth.
    • Examples: not disclosing where you work and claiming you have a different job; not disclosing your age and pretending to be younger or older; number of sexual partners (more or less); feeding pretentious delusions via fabricated narratives.
  • Ostracizing:
    • I believe this represents the most frequent motivation involved in keeping information private, and hinges upon the fear that revealing certain information will result in social rejection. This could mean losing a friend, job, or lover. It could be rejection from a group or organization you belong to. It can even refer to a loss of status or acceptance within a group or social structure. It makes sense that this would be the greatest motivation because, as social creatures, finding and maintaining connections with others is the most important aspect of long-term happiness and success.
    • Major Groupings:
      • Embarrassing/Shameful
        • This is information we ourselves feel bad about:  a failed test; a missed opportunity; a lapse in judgment; a public slip/accident; old photos of ourselves (hair/clothing); participation in something that is now passe; family members with problems; family/personal social or financial  status.
      • Illicit
        • This would be things like cheating, crimes committed, drug use, or any violation of group/societal expectations/rules.
      • Stigmatizing
        • This is information we feel bad about because others judge us as a result.
        • Examples could be: sexuality; fetishes; religious/political/group affiliation; controversial opinions; interest in an activity that is considered unacceptable or unfitting to group members; significant but benign differences (clothing/hair/origins)
      • Weakness
        • These revolve around fear of being seen as undesirable or inadequate.
        • Illnesses, fears, shows of emotion.
      • Ignorance/Inexperience
        • These all revolve around fear of others losing respect for us, feelings of inadequacy,  and subsequent ramifications.
        • Examples: being a virgin; not knowing how to solve a problem at work; making an obvious and avoidable (social) blunder; having a shallow understanding of a topic; being bad at a task, game, school subject, or sport.

I’m currently awaiting feedback on the understanding and categorization of these motivations. Once I am able to finalize this I will explore my thoughts on each, elaborate on which I think are justified and which aren’t, and explore other related concepts and ideas.

Thanks for reading! ^.^