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.

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On eReaders and Altruism

Monkeys aren’t always nice to each other. Sometimes they fight, sometimes they scream, and sometimes they just pick on each other for the hell of it. Like when a baby rhesus shoved her younger sister off of a ten-foot high crate for no apparent reason (not dissimilar to when my older sister pushed me under the dining room table when I was a baby and tried playing it off like I had “disappeared”. But I digress).

Sometimes, though, monkeys will show their altruistic side and be kind without trying to reap any benefit. A rhesus might groom someone else’s baby or a marmoset will share her marshmallow with the rest of the group. At times, this behavior can be seen in humans too.

A great example of this can be found in the non-proftit organization Worldreader. It started when the company Amazon agreed to send 20 kindles to a school in Ayenyah, Ghana, where a class of sixth graders were able to read many of the pre-downloaded books and textbooks provided (they were preloaded because they were unsure whether they’d be able to get a connection to the internet at the time).

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