The “chilling effects” of surveillance on freedom of speech

In 1975 psychologists P. Zimbardo (also known for the Stanford Prison Experiment) and G. White exposed the results of an experiment designed to test psychological side effects of surveillance, and more precisely, the negative effects of surveillance on freedom of speech. Their focus was on subjects “de-individuation” which refers to someone giving up on their individuality, inhibiting their self-expression, and “reactance”, which is defined as an “aversive motivational state experienced when a person thinks one of his freedom has been threatened or eliminated”.

The authors not distinguishing between psychological integrity and actual constitutional rights is in part what makes that article still so relevant today, 40 years and a considerable extension of the domain of surveillance later.

In the introduction of their paper, the authors don’t take detours to make clear that:

If people are inhibited by surveillance, the first amendment has at least been psychologically breached. If so, courts and legislatures may need to consider these effects in order to specify more narrowly those conditions that justify surveillance and those where surveillance violates important rights of citizens”

This research, they conclude, demonstrate that surveillance does indeed tamper with freedom of speech, and not only that, but that these “chilling effects” also come “at a price of increased disrespect for the government and society itself “. That sounds counter-productive, doesn’t it ?

Abstract :

Americans are becoming more aware that one’s private life may be under surveillance by government agencies and other institutions. Two social- psychological theories are discussed that can be applied to the effect of potentially aversive surveillance on opinion inhibition. The deindividuation- individuation hypothesis predicts that people will avoid opinion expression, while the psychological reactance hypothesis predicts opinion assertion and attack upon threatening agents. To test these notions, a reactance-arousing threat (videotaping of marijuana opinions which would be sent to the FBI) was orthogonally crossed with actual performance of the threatened action. The results are reported.

Access article here