91.7 Ann Arbor/Detroit 104.1 Grand Rapids 91.3 Port Huron 89.7 Lansing 91.1 Flint
Play Live Radio
Next Up:
0:00 0:00
Available On Air Stations

Why are you so mean online?

Social scientists believe anonymity may be the cause of what they call the "online disinhibition effect."

People are mean on the internet.

This should come as no surprise to anyone familiar with chat rooms or the comments sections of blogs. But why do people say things online that they would never say out loud?

A recent article in the Detroit Free Press asked a few experts what they thought.

"We behave in a different way when online. It's as if you're wearing a cloak or a mask and, well, you can get away with it," says Daniel Martin, associate professor of management at California State University East Bay and a visiting associate professor at Stanford University's Center for Compassion and Altruism Research and Education. "Psychologists call it deindividuation," Martin said. "When in a mask or uniform or group, you cease to recognize even yourself as an individual and therefore don't see others that way, either, don't see how you're hurting someone."

This type of deindividuation unique to the internet—what you might call “flaming” or “trolling”—social scientists call the “online disinhibition effect.” They say it accounts for the aggression, vulgarity, and downright meanness we see online.

The New York Times cites research by University of California professor Jennifer Beer suggesting the phenomenon is the result of a mismatch between our brains circuitry and the online world.

In face-to-face interaction, the brain reads a continual cascade of emotional signs and social cues, instantaneously using them to guide our next move so that the encounter goes well... Socially artful responses emerge largely in the neural chatter between the orbitofrontal cortex and emotional centers like the amygdala that generate impulsivity. But the cortex needs social information — a change in tone of voice, say — to know how to select and channel our impulses. And in e-mail there are no channels for voice, facial expression or other cues from the person who will receive what we say.

Others believe it is simply fear that keeps our nasty words at bay in everyday, face-to-face encounters. Matt Ridley of The Wall Street Journal writes:

Put two monkey strangers in a cage and they keep well apart, avoid eye contact and generally do their utmost to avoid triggering a fight. Put two people in an elevator and the same thing happens—with some verbal grooming to relieve the tension: "Cold out there today." Deep in our psyches, the act of writing a furious online critique of someone's views does not feel like a confrontation, whereas telling them the same thing over the phone or face to face does. All the cues are missing that would warn us not to risk a revenge attack by being too frank.

No matter what the cause, the practical implications are clear: online discussions often devolve into shouting matches, while more staid voices are crowded out.

This poses serious problems to someone running a website like Michigan Radio. Moderators are keen to avoid censorship while attempting to prevent inflammatory conversations from getting out of hand.

David LaGrand  sympathizes. Writing for Mlive, the former Grand Rapids city commissioner said he believes the best way to solve the online disinhibition effect is to strip away the anonymity that many commenters enjoy.

I believe that Democracy thrives on debate and disagreement, but it also thrives on courage and civility. Just as we ask public figures to account for their words and deeds, we should all strive for the courage to be similarly accountable.

So, what should be done to make you more civil online? Want a chance to try it out? Talk to us on Facebook or here on our website.

- Jordan Wyant, Michigan Radio Newsroom

Related Content