The real reason American consumers give up data? They’re ‘resigned’

contract Armin Harris. Kyle Bean for Fortune
Kyle Bean for Fortune

Historically speaking, European consumers have vocalized their concerns over the data collection practices of companies such as Facebook, Google and Twitter more loudly than their U.S. peers.

Typically, marketers have embraced this standard storyline as the explanation: American consumers are looking for some sort of quid pro quo for sharing information, in the form of discounts or special deals.

A newly published study by the University of Pennsylvania’s Annenberg School for Communication, however, suggests that this long-held perception is a fallacy.

It turns out that more than 90% of the 1,500 U.S. consumers surveyed by the college disagreed with this statement: “If companies give me a discount, it is a fair exchange for them to collect information about me without my knowing.” Furthermore, a majority of the respondents (55%) are even uncomfortable with the idea that data about buying or browsing habits might help in improving a product or service.

“Contrary to the claim that a majority of Americans consent to discounts because the commercial benefits are worth the costs, our study suggests a new explanation for what has thus far been misconstrued as ‘tradeoff’ behavior: a large pool of Americans feel resigned to the inevitability of surveillance and the power of marketers to harvest their data,” the researchers write in their analysis of the data.

That conclusion underscores separate data published in late May by the Pew Research Center suggesting that very few Americans feel they have “a lot of control” over how information about them is collected and used. They were particularly distrustful of search engine providers, social media sites, and online advertisers. The study reflects the views of close to 500 U.S. adults survey in late 2014.

“While some Americans have taken modest steps to stem the tide of data collection, few have adopted advanced privacy-enhancing measures,” the Pew researchers note. “However, majorities of Americans expect that a wide array of organizations should have limits on the length of time that they retain records of their activities and communications.”

In short, companies must to adopt far more sophisticated data management policies if they want to work toward erasing this level of distrust. The message for marketers is pretty clear: not all data is created equal, and most companies need to take far more care with how it’s used.

The University of Pennsylvania researchers conclude:

When three of every five Americans are resigned to lack of control over their data relationships with marketers, when two of every five are both resigned to marketer control over their data and worried that the control can hurt them, and when people with knowledge are actually more likely than less likely to be resigned, we have a problem.

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