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Privacy, Rationality, and Temptation: A Theory of Willpower Norms

88 Pages Posted: 13 Jul 2005  

Katherine J. Strandburg

New York University School of Law


Social norms that look askance at people when they disclose their own personal information in "inappropriate" situations are puzzling if one believes that the free flow of information promotes better decision-making. This Article proposes a solution to this puzzle that involves the interplay between self-control, temptation, human cognitive limitations, and the theory of social norms. The solution has implications for the legal regulation of information privacy. Along the way, the Article seeks to understand how problems of willpower might come to be reflected in social norms and describes how such "willpower norms" can perform socially beneficial or harmful functions. It contends that personal information norms can develop to compensate for human failures of rationality and self-control in processing information. While personal information norms may often be efficient at mitigating these failures, under some circumstances pernicious "silencing norms" can develop. These silencing norms may be exemplified by the "don't ask, don't tell" policy about gays in the military. Finally, the Article explores whether legal regulation of information privacy could compensate effectively for human information processing weaknesses in situations, such as online commercial transactions, in which social norms are unlikely to develop.

Keywords: Social norms, willpower, privacy, temptation, time-inconsistent preferences

Suggested Citation

Strandburg, Katherine J., Privacy, Rationality, and Temptation: A Theory of Willpower Norms. Rutgers Law Review, Vol. 57, No. 4, Spring 2005. Available at SSRN:

Katherine J. Strandburg (Contact Author)

New York University School of Law ( email )

40 Washington Square South
New York, NY 10012-1099
United States

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