Posts filed under ‘Anonymity’

The Familiar Stranger: The Lady on the Subway

Urban living brings about an interesting phenomenon, one which Milgram calls the Familiar Stranger.

The Familiar Stranger is a person you see during your daily activities, but don’t interact with: the gentleman at the bus stop, the babysitter at the park, or the lady on the subway.

But consider for a moment you saw the lady on the subway while traveling to Paris. Can you imagine, it’s likely you would practically become best friends in a day!

To be a familiar stranger, a person has to be

  1. observed
  2. repeatedly for a certain time period
  3. without any interaction

Milgram notes,

But it’s a real relationship, in which both parties have agreed to mutually ignore each other, without any implication of hostility.

Students from a university in New York went to the commuter stations and interviewed commuters. They found that on average, commuters knew 4 familiar strangers but had only talked to 1.5 individuals.

Commuters said they have a fantasy relationship with familiar strangers, trying to figure out what kind of lives they lead, what their jobs are, etc.

This phenomenon is explained as a response to the overload of inputs from the environment — perceptual processing takes considerably less time than social processing.

However, I think when you see someone you barely recognize from school a few years later at a department store, it feels like you’re friends because you know each other relatively better than everyone else there.

Berkeley is doing a study called the Familiar Stranger Project, which is worth taking a look at.

Milgram, S. (1972). The Familiar Stranger: An Aspect of Urban Anonymity. Division 8 Newsletter.

October 2, 2006 at 1:15 pm 41 comments

How personalization and authentication affect Internet surveys

Internet surveys are an efficient way of collecting information. They have been shown to increase self-disclosure for sensitive questions, and also reduce “good” answers (more socially acceptable responses).

An interesting dilemma occurs when the participant comes across a question they might not want to answer, such as, “What is your salary?”

They can choose to passively not answer (no response, or the default choice), or they can actively not answer (selecting the option “I prefer not to answer”).

Authentication is when the participant needs to log in to take the survey, as opposed to going to a URL that encodes the participant’s information in the address. One of the studies shows that “I prefer not to answer” was chosen more often when authentication (log in) was used, versus when the URL encoded the information.

Personalization is when the email inviting the participant to do the survey had a salutation that identified the participant. The salutation would be something like “Dear Napoleon” instead of “Dear Student”. In the study, surveys where the invitation email had a personalized salutation did not generate a significant difference in non-responses to sensitive questions. However, it did ratio of active non-responses (“I prefer not to answer”) to passive non-responses (skip the question) increased.

To conclude, reduction of anonymity reduced responses to sensitive questions. However, it also encouraged participants to answer questions “better”. It’s interesting that such a minute detail would have a significant effect on responses to sensitive questions.

Joinson, A. N., Woodley, A., & Reips, U. (2007). Personalization, authentication, and self-disclosure in self-administered Internet surveys. Computers in Human Behavior 23(1), 275-285. [PDF]

September 12, 2006 at 3:39 pm Leave a comment


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