Privacy as Personal Control

“Personal control” was identified as the psychological concept central to privacy.

Definition of Privacy

Wolfe &Laufer (1974) write: “The need and ability to exert control over self, objects, spaces, information and behavior is a critical element in any concept of privacy” (p. 3).

Three aspects of privacy, all of which are concerned with control:

  1. freedom to choose or control of choice,
  2. control over how much access others have to one’s thoughts and behaviors,
  3. control over how much the environment can affect one, i.e. the ability to shield oneself from the effects of the environment if necessary.

Altman (1974) defines privacy as “the selective control over access to the self or to one’s group” (p. 6).

Definition of Personal Control

The term “personal control” is related to terms like “autonomy,” “freedom,” and “power”.

Personal Control as a Psychological Concept

Byrne and Clore (1967) : Situations that threaten a person’s perception of personal control are noxious to the person. This motivates the person with the need to attempt at restoring effective control over him/herself in the situation. The person adapts to the situation by reacting in a way to maintain personal control.

When personal control is greatly compromised, and if the situation is not improved, the individual adapts to this situation through behavioral responses, and/or psycho and somatic responses, which are part of the creative adjustment to the adverse environmental situation.

This is not different from the response of a person to traumatic situations. What are the symptoms of trauma? What are the adaptations to traumatic experiences?

Privacy may be described as two-way information control. For Altman, “Privacy is an interpersonal boundary control process, designed to pace
and regulate interactions with others” (p. 3, emphasis added).

Wolfe and Laufer (1974) suggest that privacy has three aspects:

  1. control over choice,
  2. control over access, and
  3. control over stimulation.

Westin (1967) : Privacy is the “claim of individuals, groups or institutions to determine for themselves when, how, and to what extent information about them is communicated to others” (p. 7)

“…the most serious threats to an individual’s autonomy is the possibility that someone may penetrate the inner zone and learn his secrets … [which] would have him naked to ridicule and shame and would put him under the control of those who know his secrets” (p. 36, emphasis added).

Interesting point. What is the intention of the other to deprive the individual of privacy? Control? What is behind this behavior? Fear? misstrust? Insecurity? How does projective identification does this.

Kelvin (1973) views privacy as a kind of counterpower that one can exercise to modify or nullify the perceived power of others. “Thus privacy is not simply freedom of action due to the absence of intervention or constraint, but freedom in a context of potential power which might inhibit it” (p. 11).

In sum, privacy as control is behavior selection control. As such it is particularly immune to consistency validation. As a result, privacy concerns are more likely than many other control concerns to create conditions for stress. Research suggests that disease may be a consequence of uncertain outcome control (i.e., low behavior-selection control, Weiss, 1972). Other data suggest that suddenly losing control–as when behav- iors which previously had been adequate, fail to work in a new situation– is also highly predictive of disease (Stroebel, in Luce, 1971).

Holmes and Rahe (1967) found that chronic disease correlated highly with
the magnitude of social readjustments required of people in a given duration. The authors argue that uncertainty, especially about how to act in new situations, produces stress that contributes to disease. Certain aspects
of privacy as well (i.e., uncertainty about privacy requirements) may prove contribute significantly to disease. Some concern about this relationship has been expressed recently in the medical literature (Kornfeld, 1972). In view of these possibilities, imaginative and well-designed research into

the relationship between privacy and disease, especially between privacy and recovery from disease in hospitals and other treatment facilities, is called for.


Johnson, C. A. (1974). Privacy as personal control. Man-environment interactions: evaluations and applications: part2, 83-100.

Altman, I. Privacy: A Conceptual Analysis. In S. T. Margulis (Chm.), Privacy as a Behavioral Phenomenon, Symposium presented at the meeting of the Environmental Design Research Association, Milwaukee, Hay, 1974.

HOLMES, T. H., &RAHE, R. H. The Social Readjustment Rating Scale. Journal of Psychosomatic Research, 1967, 11, 213-218.

KELVIN, P. A Social-Psychological Examination of Privacy. British Journal of Social and Clinical Psychology, 1973, 12, 248-261.

WOLFE, M., &LAUFER, R. S. The Concept of Privacy in Childhood and Adolescence. In S. T. Margulis (Chm.), Privacy as a Behavioral Phenomenon, Symposium presented at the meeting of the Environmental Design Research
A ssociation, Milwaukee, Hay, 1974.

WESTIN, A. F. Privacy and Freedom. New York: Antheneum, 1967.

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