Secret Information Is More Trusted
This is an interesting, if slightly disturbing, result:
In one experiment, we had subjects read two government policy papers from 1995, one from the State Department and the other from the National Security Council, concerning United States intervention to stop the sale of fighter jets between foreign countries.
The documents, both of which were real papers released through the Freedom of Information Act, argued different sides of the issue. Depending on random assignment, one was described as having been previously classified, the other as being always public. Most people in the study thought that whichever document had been “classified” contained more accurate and well-reasoned information than the public document.
In another experiment, people read a real government memo from 1978 written by members of the National Security Council about the sale of fighter jets to Taiwan; we then explained that the council used the information to make decisions. Again, depending on random assignment, some people were told that the document had been secret and for exclusive use by the council, and that it had been recently declassified under the Freedom of Information Act. Others were told that the document had always been public.
As we expected, people who thought the information was secret deemed it more useful, important and accurate than did those who thought it was public. And people judged the National Security Council’s actions based on the information as more prudent and wise when they believed the document had been secret.
Our study helps explain the public’s support for government intelligence gathering. A recent poll by the Pew Research Center for the People and the Press reported that a majority of Americans thought it was acceptable for the N.S.A. to track Americans’ phone activity to investigate terrorism. Some frustrated commentators have concluded that Americans have much less respect for their own privacy than they should.
But our research suggests another conclusion: the secret nature of the program itself may lead the public to assume that the information it gathers is valuable, without even examining what that information is or how it might be used.
Original paper abstract; the full paper is behind a paywall.