Is there an evolutionary advantage to privacy?

Between increasing social media and ever-advancing technologies, the issue of privacy invasion is one worth addressing. One of the major questions I’ve noticed that surfaces in discussions on privacy is “Do the benefits outweigh the risks?” I wanted to dissect this question and reword it so that it becomes relevant to human behavior, so I began researching the topic: is there an evolutionary advantage to privacy? If there is, is this advantage still relevant in the age of digital technology and media?

I started with the basics, monkeys, and worked my way up from there. An interesting study performed by Emory University showed that rhesus macaques provided with the simplest form of privacy, a plastic divider that covered half of the opening between two cages, significantly decreased the occurrence of aggressive behavior and anxiety. I know, it doesn’t seem exactly groundbreaking to find out that you’re much less likely to attack your sibling if you have your own room, but it does provide some insight into the psychology of rhesus monkeys. As they usually live in packs and are incredibly social, it seems almost counterintuitive to find a positive outcome to an increase in separation between two individuals. It shows that on the most primitive, basic level of our ancestors, there was already a preference for privacy.

Photo from the study performed by Emory University. Monkeys are in two separate cages with a divider that covers half of the space between them, allowing them to move freely between the two, but still maintain a sense of privacy.

The New York Times also wrote an article on the subject, focusing on how people who share less information with others and socialize less are less likely to find themselves in a dangerous or life-threatening situation, break rules, or have affairs. They have also consistently scored higher on standardized tests and are more likely to be able to access stored information in the brain in regions that deal with making associations. It would seem that a proclivity for maintaining one’s privacy is an evolutionary trait that originated as a survival strategy. But where does this stand in today’s social media and technology-fueled world?

Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg has already shared his thoughts on the topic, boldly stating that the age of privacy is over. Anthropologist Helen Fisher believes that, while certain activities such as reproduction have never been exactly public display, the majority of daily life for almost all of previous human culture has been communal anyway (that is to say, the age of privacy never actually existed). She argues:

Our ancestros lived and ate and prayed and talked and danced together.   And everybody must have known just about everything about everybody else. But this lack of privacy undoubtedly had payoffs: If all your relatives and friends knew your secrets, these companions would also be inclined to support your causes, feel your pains, and celebrate your joys.  Communal living gave people support and comfort.   Perhaps this is what these folks on these TV shows also seek: community.  Facebook, Twitter, email, reality TV, blogs: these are probably more forms of community-building that we pursue “naturally”—a primordial impulse to share our lives in our mercurial world.

In the same way that we may be increasing our primate pack, maybe we are also increasing our communities of those we look to for the most intimate support. Originally relegated to close friends and family, we now rely on the world to listen to our problems, relieve our insecurities, and validate our self-worth. So I just have to ask: Do the benefits outweigh the risks?


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