Positive Cues Make Online Piracy Confessions More Honest, Research Finds

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The vast majority of piracy-related consumer research is conducted through surveys. Over time, these findings can spot useful trends. However, new experimental research suggests that the piracy habits reported by respondents can vary depending on how surveys are primed.

sharing is caringPiracy is a complicated phenomenon but most consumer research surveys on the topic are relatively straightforward.

Since most pirates don’t like to have their online activity monitored, piracy studies generally rely on self-reported data instead.

These types of surveys are very common in all sorts of areas but they tend to come with several inherent biases. That’s particularly true if respondents are asked about behavior that’s against the law, which applies to piracy in most parts of the world.

One can imagine that some people, consciously or not, will downplay how often they use pirate sites and services. The opposite could be true for more defiant personality types, of course.

Making Piracy Confessions More Honest

Most researchers take these biases for granted and assume that comparisons over time will still be able to spot important trends. However, a new working paper from University of Portsmouth researchers suggests a simple way to make pirates more ‘honest’ in their reporting.

honest pirates

In a series of two studies, Kate Whitman and colleagues asked respondents to fill out a survey on a variety of subjects. This included a question where they had to estimate how many times they downloaded or streamed pirated content over the past week; if they pirated at all.

This is a basic question that regularly appears in piracy surveys. The researchers, citing the social desirability bias, assume that the average respondent will underreport their piracy activity by default. However, it also predicts that this tendency can be manipulated with a simple trick.

Psychology research has shown that using certain filler questions to ‘cue’ or ‘prime’ people towards positive or negative behavior can impact their follow-up answers on unrelated topics.

Priming Pirates

In the first study, the research applies this principle to see if these cues can change people’s piracy answers by contrasting them with control groups where no cues are used. Since men and women tend to respond differently to these cues, gender is taken into account as well.

The researchers used these cues in the form of questions where respondents were asked to answer on a 5-point scale whether they agreed or not. Both positive and negative attitudes and behaviors were used as primes, but positive attitudes only had a significant impact.

study cues

These cues asked respondents to indicate to what degree they support the creative industries, by paying for Spotify or Netflix or going to the movies, for example.

Positive Cues Boost Piracy Confessions

These cue questions were eventually followed by piracy estimates. When analyzing the results, the researchers found that pirates estimated higher piracy usage after completing these positive behavior cue questions.

A likely explanation for this finding is that the cues make people more honest. After pirates have the opportunity to display support for the creative industries, it is apparently easier to rationalize piracy.

Men tend to pirate more and this ‘rationalization’ effect is somewhat stronger for them as well. That finding is in line with earlier research, which showed that men are more likely to use these types of rationalizations to overcome cognitive dissonance.

Social Desirability & Gender

The second study aimed to confirm these findings. In this case, the researchers only used positive behavior cues and the control group. Because they expected people’s tendency to show socially desirable behavior to be an important factor, that was also measured through the survey.

The findings of this follow-up showed that, overall, respondents who scored high on the social desirability scale reported lower piracy ‘consumption’.

Interestingly, the positive cues also increased people’s self-reported piracy but that effect wasn’t found for respondents who have a lower social desirability score.

The positive cues appear to work best for men, as the first study also suggested. The cues increase the reported piracy volume regardless of the social desirability bias level. For women, however, the cues only worked for respondents with a high social desirability bias.

The Implications

The main takeaway of the studies is that survey design and the framing of questions can steer people’s reporting. That’s important for researchers and applies to marketing and communication fields as well.

“Overall, the research underscores the significance of positive cues in increasing honest reporting of undesirable behaviors and sheds light on gender differences in response to survey primes,” the paper notes.

“We estimate that the positive cues treatment increases the amount of piracy participants are willing to report by 42%.”


By taking these findings into account, researchers can potentially obtain more honest responses, also when people are asked about activities that are more criminal in nature.

“This intervention is easily adopted by market researchers and may extend beyond improved past behavior reporting to include attitudes and intentions. Moreover, the method may have broader implications for eliciting truthful responses from individuals involved in more serious criminal or sensitive activities.”

Future research will have to show how these results hold up in other populations and whether other variables also play a role.

Currently, the researchers assume that people are underreporting their piracy habits by default, but that may warrant follow-up research too. Ideally, researchers should measure piracy directly, but for some reason, we think that pirates will change their habits if they know they’re being monitored.

A copy of the working paper is available here.

Kate Whitman & Zahra Murad & Joe Cox, 2023. “Confessions of a pirate: Gender difference in survey prime to increase honest reporting,” Working Papers in Economics & Finance 2023-05, University of Portsmouth, Portsmouth Business School, Economics and Finance Subject Group.


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