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How surveillance changes behavior

Data: SurveyMonkey online poll of 3,454 employed adults, Aug. 20–25, with a margin of error of ±2.5 points. Chart: Andrew Witherspoon/Axios

The point of surveillance is to track and influence people's behavior — in the political sphere, at school, in the subway or in the workplace. Just how new technologies affect someone's behavior and thinking at work depends on each individual, what they are doing and the goals of those who are surveilling.

The big picture: Experts predict AI-fueled mass surveillance will alter people’s behavior. But exactly how it will change our thinking isn’t well understood.

Studies of electronic monitoring in the workplace offer some insights into the psychological impact of surveillance.

The positive: In some circumstances, monitoring can be used to improve performance or train employees.

The negative: It can also focus people on optimizing for a particular goal at the expense of others, diminish the quality of someone's work or increase stress.

  • When the purpose of monitoring isn't clear or trusted, employees can come up with ways to avoid it, spurring managers to monitor them even more, a 2018 study of TSA workers suggests.
  • "Managers should be good at communicating their intent widely and clearly but also demonstrating how it will be helpful to workers," says Curtis Chan, who studies organizational management at Boston College and was an author of the TSA study along with Michel Anteby of Boston University.

Now there is data tracing our days — Slack messages, comings and going via fob swipes and social media posts.

  • When managers poke and prod that happenstance information or monitor employees without communicating a clear purpose in doing it, it can signal a lack of respect and trust, says psychologist Tara Behrend of George Washington University.
  • "There is a sense of each party owes the other one something and this kind of surveillance can violate that," she tells Axios.
  • Some people will then look for ways to reassert their autonomy, for example, by withholding effort or not helping to train a new employee.

What they're saying:

  • 62% of people surveyed by Axios and SurveyMonkey said it is appropriate for an employer to routinely monitor employees using technology.
  • 48% said they would change their behavior if they knew their employer was monitoring them.
  • That's not surprising, says Behrend, but the type of data being monitored may matter (physiological measures of sweat levels, for example, versus work emails) and whether someone considers themselves as being monitored.

Society doesn't mirror the workplace: The agreements between parties are different.

  • Still, Behrend says surveillance in both cases involves one party having power over the other — a dynamic that defines monitoring and its effects on behavior.

The bottom line: The basic principles of learning, motivation and trust still apply when these technologies are deployed. "We can’t just start throwing tech at things and not expect it to have profound psychological effects," says Behrend.

Methodology: These data are from a SurveyMonkey online poll conducted among employed adults ages 18 and older in the United States. Respondents were selected from the more than 2 million people who take surveys on the SurveyMonkey platform each day. Data have been weighted for age, race, sex, education and geography using the Census Bureau’s American Community Survey to reflect the demographic composition of the United States age 18 and over. The survey was conducted August 20-25, 2019 among 3,454 employed adults. The modeled error estimate for the full sample is plus or minus 2.5 percentage points.

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