The Flawed Psychology of
Government Mass Surveillance
By Chris Chambers

Research shows that indiscriminate monitoring
fosters distrust, conformity and mediocrity.

John Hurt in a film adaptation of George Orwell's 1984
Recent disclosures about the scope of government surveillance are staggering. We now know that the UK's Tempora program records huge volumes of private communications, including — as standard — our emails, social networking activity, internet histories, and telephone calls. Much of this data is then shared with the US National Security Agency, which operates its own (formerly) clandestine surveillance operation. Similar programs are believed to operate in Russia, China, India and throughout several European countries.

While pundits have argued vigorously about the merits and drawbacks of such programs, the voice of science has remained relatively quiet. This is despite the fact that science, alone, can lay claim to a wealth of empirical evidence on the psychological effects of surveillance. Studying that evidence leads to a clear conclusion and a warning: indiscriminate intelligence-gathering presents a grave risk to our mental health, productivity, social cohesion, and ultimately our future.

Surveillance impairs mental health and performance

For more than 15 years we've known that surveillance leads to heightened levels of stress, fatigue and anxiety. In the workplace it also reduces performance and our sense of personal control. A government that engages in mass surveillance cannot claim to value the wellbeing or productivity of its citizens.

Surveillance promotes distrust between the public and the state

People will trust an authority to the extent that it is seen to behave in their interest and trust them in return. Research suggests that people tolerate limited surveillance provided they believe their security is being bought with someone else's liberty. The moment it becomes clear that they are in fact trading their own liberty, the social contract is broken. Violating this trust changes the definition of "us" and "them" in a way that can be dangerous for a democratic authority — suddenly, most of the population stands in opposition to their own government.

Surveillance breeds conformity

For more than 50 years we've known that surveillance encourages conformity to social norms. In a series of classic experiments during the 1950s, psychologist Solomon Asch showed that conformity is so powerful that individuals will follow the crowd even when the crowd is obviously wrong. A government that engages in mass surveillance cannot claim to value innovation, critical thinking or originality.

Surveillance can actually undermine the influence of authority

Security chiefs may believe that surveillance gives them greater control over the populace, but is this truly the case? The answer is complicated. A recent study found that if members of a team felt a common social identity with their leader then surveillance in fact reduced the leader's influence by fostering resentment and distrust. However, if they saw their leader as belonging to a social outgroup then surveillance increased the leader's power.

This pattern is interesting because it places politicians and the security services at loggerheads. For politicians to succeed in a democracy they must be seen as part of the same ingroup as their electorate. We see this in force most strongly during election time, when politicians go to great pains to emphasise their grass roots connections with the community. But by supporting mass surveillance, politicians then undermine this relationship.

The security services, on the other hand, have the opposite motivation. For them, mutual distrust is par for the course, so it is better to maintain a social distance from the public. That way they are guaranteed to be perceived as an outgroup, which — the evidence suggests — increases the influence they can wield through surveillance.

There are two ways to resolve this conflict between the motivations of elected representatives and security services. One is to embrace totalitarianism, breaking all bonds of social identity between politicians and the electorate. In this (unpalatable) scenario, democracy converts to a police state in which all parts of government are seen by the populace as an outgroup. An alternative is to put an end to mass surveillance, forcing the security services to fall in line with the parts of government that value liberty.

What seems clear is that the government can't moonlight as both an ingroup and an outgroup — it can't claim to serve the liberty of its citizens while in the same breath violating that liberty. If they achieve nothing else, the Snowden revelations throw this contradiction into sharp relief.

Surveillance paves the way to a pedestrian future

As the world's governments march toward universal surveillance, their ignorance of psychology is clear at every step. Even in the 2009 House of Lords report "Surveillance: Citizens and the State" — a document that is critical of surveillance — not a single psychologist is interviewed and, in 130 pages, not a single reference is made to decades of psychological research.

We ignore this evidence at our peril. Psychology forewarns us that a future of universal surveillance will be a world bereft of anything sufficiently interesting to spy on — a beige authoritarian landscape in which we lose the ability to relax, innovate, or take risks. A world in which the definition of "appropriate" thought and behaviour becomes so narrow that even the most pedantic norm violations are met with exclusion or punishment. A world in which we may even surrender our very last line of defence — the ability to look back and ask: Why did we do this to ourselves?

This article originally appeared on August 26, 2013, here in the Science section of The Guardian.

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