Does secrecy help measure the value of information?

Having noted a couple of times over the last few weeks the United States’ obsession with secrecy I could not resist this article in the New Yorker about the value of secret information.  As we have noted before there are almost a million people with top secret clearance and millions with lower clearances. And that this tendency for secrecy is in part a way of making people feel special; helping to create a hierarchy. However it also seems that something being secret distorts the decision making process it is supposed to help. This is because people instinctively value ‘secret’ information more than non-secret information giving it more weight regardless of whether it should be given such weight.

This is shown by a study by the University of Colorado at Boulder. The researchers did several experiments to show this but ill quite just a bit on one as it gives the general idea

The New Yorker wrote:
researchers asked fifty-six undergraduate students at the University of Colorado at Boulder to read and evaluate policy papers—one from the State Department and one from the National Security Council—about the sale of military aircraft from Belarus to Peru in the nineteen-nineties. Participants were given both papers (based on real documents from the time that had since been declassified), but only one would have the "declassified" stamp, signalling that it had been secret. Those who thought the National Security Council document was classified as secret gave it, on average, a quality rating of eight out of eleven. Those who thought it had always been public gave it an average grade of 6.89.

So the same document is considered more reliable when it is known that it had been secret. Mark Travers, one of the researchers says that this is because “When we have a hard problem, we rely on easy-to-understand rules of thumb instead of grappling with it. Information quality is a hard problem, so we have a proclivity to fall back on secrecy as an indicator of quality.” So it seems secret information is indeed considered to be more valuable. Let us hope that those making decisions however don’t have the same reaction of considering information to be more valuable just because it comes from someone who can stamp their documents with ‘Top Secret’.

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