Online Disinhibition Effect

Cyberpsychology

The core concept of the Online Disinhibition Effect refers to a loosening (or complete abandonment) of social restrictions and inhibitions that would otherwise be present in normal face-to-face interaction during interactions with others on the Internet. Because of the loss of inhibition, some users may exhibit benign tendencies; people may become more affectionate, more willing to open up to others, less guarded about their emotions and may speak to others about what they are feeling in an attempt to achieve emotional catharsis.

According to psychologist John Suler, this particular occurrence is called benign disinhibition. With respect to bad behavior, users on the Internet can frequently do or say as they wish without fear of any kind of meaningful reprisal. In most Internet forums, the worst kind of punishment one can receive for bad behavior is usually being banned from a particular site. In practice, however, this serves little use; the person involved can usually circumvent the ban by simply registering another username and continuing the same behavior as before. Suler calls this toxic disinhibition.

CB radio during the 1970s saw similar bad behavior: ‘Most of what you hear on CB radio is either tedious (truck drivers warning one another about speed traps) or banal (schoolgirls exchanging notes on homework), but at its occasional—and illegal—worst it sinks a pipeline to the depths of the American unconscious. Your ears are assaulted by the sound of racism at its most rampant, and by masturbation fantasies that are the aural equivalent of rape. The sleep of reason, to quote Goya’s phrase, brings forth monsters, and the anonymity of CB encourages the monsters to emerge.’

Suler names six primary factors behind why people sometimes act radically different on the internet than when they do in normal face-to-face situations: ‘You Don’t Know Me’; ‘You Can’t See Me’; ‘See You Later’; ‘It’s All in My Head’; ‘It’s Just a Game’; and ‘We’re Equals.’ The notion of ‘You Don’t Know Me’ comes down to simple anonymity; when the person remains anonymous, it provides a sense of protection; within the framework of the Internet, this allows the user to move about without any kind of indication of identity or even distinguishing characteristics other than potentially a username. This kind of protection can provide a meaningful release for people in that they feel free to say things they might otherwise be embarrassed to, but by the same token, it also provides an outlet for behaviors that others might term antisocial or harmful.

‘You Can’t See Me’ refers to invisibility; the Internet provides a shield to its users. Often all one receives when interacting with another person on the Internet is a username or pseudonym that may or may not have anything to do with the real person behind the keyboard. This allows for misrepresentation of a person’s true self; online a male can pose as a female and vice versa, for example. Additionally, the invisibility of the Internet prohibits people from reading standard social cues; small changes in facial expression, tone of voice, aversion of eyes, etc., all have specific connotations in normal face-to-face interaction.

‘See You Later’ overlaps heavily with anonymity, because the two often share attributes. However, even if one’s identity is known and anonymity is removed from the equation, the inability to physically see the person on the other end causes one’s inhibitions to be lowered. One can’t be physically seen on the Internet, typically – therefore, the need to concern oneself with appearance and tone of voice is dramatically lowered and sometimes absent.

‘See You Later’ refers to the asynchronous nature of the Internet. On internet message boards, conversations do not happen in real time. A reply may be posted as shortly as several minutes; however, it may take months or longer for someone to post. Because of this, it’s easier for someone to ‘throw their opinions out’ and then leave; a person can make a single post that might be considered very personal, emotionally charged, or inflammatory and then ‘run away’ by simply not logging in again. In this way, the person achieves catharsis by ‘voicing’ their feelings, even if the audience is just as invisible. However, the asynchronous nature of the Internet also allows a person to more closely examine what they say and to more carefully choose their words; in this manner, someone who might otherwise have difficulty in face-to-face interactions can suddenly seem eloquent and well-mannered when reading message board posts or even in text-chat forums such as IRC or instant messaging.

‘It’s All in My Head’ refers to solipsistic introjection (the process where the subject replicates in itself behaviors, attributes or other fragments of the surrounding world, especially of other subjects). Lacking any kind of visual face-to-face cues, the human mind will assign characteristics and traits to a ‘person’ in interactions on the internet. Reading another person’s message may insert imagined images of what a person looks like or sounds like into the mind, and mentally assigns an identity to these things. The mind will associate traits to a user according to our own desires, needs, and wishes – traits that the real person might not actually have. Additionally, this allows fantasies to be played out in the mind, because the user may construct an elaborate system of emotions, memories, and images – inserting the user and the person they are interacting with into a role-play that helps reinforce the ‘reality’ of the person on the other end within the mind of the user.

‘It’s Just a Game’ refers to the fact that by combining solipsistic introjection with the imagination, a feeling of escapism is produced – a way to throw off mundane concerns to address a specific need without having to worry about consequences. According to Suler’s personal discussion with lawyer Emily Finch (a criminal lawyer studying identity theft in cyberspace), Finch’s observation is that people may see cyberspace as a kind of game where the normal rules of everyday interaction don’t apply to them. In this way, the user is able to dissociate their online persona from the offline reality, effectively enabling that person to don that persona or shed it whenever they wish simply by logging on or off.

Lastly, ‘We’re Equals’ refers to authority minimization; online, a person’s status may not be known to others and often, this lack of hierarchy causes changes in interactions. If people can’t see the user, others have no way to know if the user is an on-duty police officer, head of state, or some kind of ‘ordinary’ person hanging out in their den on their computer. While real-world status may have a small effect on one’s status on the Internet, it rarely has any true bearing. Instead, things such as communication skill, quality of ideas, persistence, and technical ability determine one’s status in cyberspace. Additionally, people can be reluctant to speak their minds in front of an authority figure. Fear of reprisal or disapproval quashes the desire to speak out, and on the Internet, levels of authority that might otherwise be present in real life are often completely absent; this turns what might otherwise be a superior-inferior relationship into a relationship of equals – and people are far more likely to speak their mind to an equal than a superior.

Perhaps one of the most serious consequences of the online disinhibition effect is the advent of cyber bullying in recent years. The website overcomebullying.org states that ‘[with] the advent of modern communications such as email, chat, text messaging and cell phones as well as the ability to publish online on websites, blogs and social networking sites such as Facebook and MySpace, making their message instantly available to millions, the bully’s reach and powers of social manipulation have been increased exponentially.’ The site goes on to suggest that ‘[perhaps] the internet lends itself to this indifference. Bullies don’t have to see their victims or answer for their actions,’ which seems to fit with the ‘You Don’t Know Me’ and ‘You Can’t See Me’ concepts.

Likewise, the online disinhibition effect might also be attributable to the controversial state of the comment sections on many online blogs, and on sites like YouTube. Blogs like ‘Stop Anonymous Online Comments’ claim that the anonymity granted internet users leads to comments ‘[often] filled with exaggerations, outright lies, threats of violence, and blatant racism,’ and that ‘the vast majority of these reader comments are published in complete anonymity…’ ‘This anonymity,’ the author goes on to opine, ‘fosters an environment that tolerates, even encourages, comments and statements that tear at the fabric that holds our society together.’ The general feeling is that the average internet user would not make such comments or behave in such ways if not for the invisible smokescreen that online usernames and anonymity provide. According to Norman H. Holland, ‘people regress,’ when communicating online, because, among other reasons, the physical distance from other users and the inability to interpret body language and physical reactions results in a lack of direct feedback.

The online disinhibition effect can also have potentially deleterious effects on one’s job-security and future employment opportunities. Sixteen-year-old Kimberley Swann was fired from her job due to negative comments she made about her occupation on her Facebook page, while another infamous case involved a woman, Heather Armstrong, being terminated after ‘lampooning’ her colleagues on the internet. Overall, these are all consequences of certain internet users believing themselves to be unchained from typical social strictures. ‘Compared with face-to-face interactions,’ the author of ‘Six Causes of Online Disinhibition’ states, ‘online we feel freer to do and say what we want and, as a result, often do and say things we shouldn’t.’

Popular online comic ‘Penny Arcade describes’ ‘John Gabriel’s Greater Internet Fuckwad Theory,’ which posits that an otherwise well-adjusted person, given anonymity and a captive audience, will immediately turn into a ‘total fuckwad,’ exhibiting antisocial and psychopathic behaviors online.

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