Privacy Regulation Theory

Privacy regulation theory was developed by social psychologist Irwin Altman in 1975. This theory aims to explain why people sometimes prefer staying alone but at other times like get involved in social interactions. Traditionally, privacy is regarded as a state of social withdrawal (i.e., avoiding people). Altman, however, regards it as a dialectic and dynamic boundary regulation process where privacy is not static but “a selective control of access to the self or to one’s group” (p. 18). According to Altman, “dialectic” refers to the openness and closeness of self to others (i.e., seeking and avoiding social interaction); while “dynamics” indicates that the desired privacy level (i.e., the ideal level of contact at a particular time), which varies due to individual and cultural differences, continuously moves along the continuum of openness and closeness in response to different circumstances over time. In other words, the desired privacy level changes with time according to environment. Therefore, we might want to avoid people at a particular time but desire contact at another time.

Altman also believes the goal of privacy regulation is to achieve the optimum level of privacy (i.e., the ideal level of social interaction). In this optimizing process, we all strive to match the achieved privacy (i.e. the actual level of contact at a specific time) with the desired one. At the optimum level of privacy, we can experience the desired solitude when we want to be alone or enjoy the desired social contact when we want to be with people. However, if our actual level of privacy is greater than the desired one, we will feel lonely or isolated; on the other hand, if our actual level of privacy is smaller than the desired one, we will feel annoyed or crowded. According to Altman, if we effectively control the openness and closedness of self to others (i.e., make ourselves more or less available to others) in response to our desire and the environment, we can function better in society than those who cannot. In order to regulate our privacy (i.e., social interaction) successfully, we need to use a variety of behavioral mechanisms such as verbal, paraverbal and non-verbal behavior, environmental mechanisms of territoriality and personal space, etc. By combining these behavioral mechanisms (i.e., techniques), we can effectively express our desired privacy level to others in order to achieve the optimum level of privacy.

Read more about Privacy Regulation Theory:  Contribution and Implication of Altman’s Privacy Regulation Theory, Application The Privacy Regulation Theory

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