The pernicious controlling power of ubiquitous

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The pernicious controlling power of ubiquitous surveillance and the self-censorship that results are confirmed in a range of social science experiments and extend far beyond political activism. Ample studies show how this dynamic works at the deepest personal and psychological levels. One team of researchers, publishing their findings in the journal Evolutionary Psychology, presented their subjects with morally questionable actions, such as keeping a sizeable amount of money found in a wallet on the street or knowing that a friend had added false information to his résumé. The subjects were asked to assess the degree of wrongdoing. The study noted that subjects who were shown images hinting at surveillance, such as a large pair of staring eyes, rated the actions as more “reprehensible” than those who were shown a neutral image. The researchers concluded that surveillance encourages those who are being watched to “affirm their endorsement of prevailing social norms” as they attempt to “actively manage their reputations.” A comprehensive experiment conducted in 1975 by Stanford University psychologists Gregory White and Philip Zimbardo, entitled “The Chilling Effects of Surveillance,” sought to assess whether being watched had an impact on the expression of controversial political opinions. The impetus for the study was Americans’ concerns about surveillance by the government: The Watergate scandal, revelations of White House bugging, and Congressional investigations of domestic spying by the Central Intelligence Agency have served to underscore the developing paranoid theme of American life: Big Brother may be watching you! Proposals for national data banks, uses of surveillance helicopters by urban police forces, the presence of observation cameras in banks and supermarkets, and airport security searches of person and property are but some of the signs
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that our private lives are under such increasing scrutiny. The participants were placed under varying levels of surveillance and asked to give their views on the legalization of marijuana. It turned out that “threatened” subjects—those who were told that their statements would be shared with the police “for training purposes”—were more likely to condemn marijuana usage and to use second- and third-person pronouns (“you,” “they,” “people”) in their language. Only 44 percent of subjects under surveillance advocated for legalization, compared to 77 percent of those not so “threatened.” Tellingly, 31 percent of the participants being monitored spontaneously sought approval from the researchers (asking, for example, “Is that all right?”), whereas only 7 percent of the other group did so. Participants who were “threatened” also scored significantly higher on feelings of anxiety and inhibition.
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  • Spring '14
  • Vanouse,P
  • NSA warrantless surveillance controversy, Laura Poitras

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