3.03.2007

"Online Disinhibition"

One of the best parts about communicating via machines—whether by email, or instant messenger, or Google chat, or text message—is the lack of inhibition. I’ve known this since 10th grade, when I used to stay up late into the weeknight talking, on AIM, to my crushes from math class. The next day, in class and face to face, those same screennames transformed into real, scary boys, and we would barely exchange a few words.

About a week ago, the NYT ran a fun piece about this phenomena, which in the psychological literature is referred to as “online disinhibition.” The article mentions a paper published in the journal CyberPsychology & Behavior (yes, that is a real journal, and even peer-reviewed) that lists five factors that lead to online disinhibition:

-the anonymity of a Web pseudonym;

-invisibility to others [I don’t understand how this is a different factor than the previous one…];

-the time lag between sending an e-mail message and getting feedback;

-the exaggerated sense of self from being alone; and

-the lack of any online authority figure.

Thankfully, to dovetail this pop psychology, the article goes on to give a bit of neuroscience:

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.

Consequently, as we all know, words are often sent hastily in cyberspace. Words that you didn’t necessarily mean to send. Or words that were taken in an unintended tone. Happily for us, many bold NYT readers submitted their own stories of emails that were sent and later regretted. Here are a few snippets…

I sent an email to my daughter’s boyfriend telling him: “You suck”. He was playing the yo-yo game with her and my mother hen instincts drove me to do something I regret to this day! Even though they are no longer together…I still feel badly. — Posted by RJK

I once sent an email to my congressman and told him he was doing a good job. I wish I had never done that. — Posted by Ralph

I had a roommate, one of several at the time, who, delusional, believed he was “in charge” of our shared house and everything that went on in it. This drove me absolutely mental — the situation was so creepily inappropriate. The guy was sick. Anyway, the morning after a particularly objectionable in-person encounter with him, I woke up early, still seething, and typed up a long, detailed e-mail in which I told him off in technicolor. I was furious and took great satisfaction in hitting “Send”. Hoo, brother. He got me back in the cheapest way. He forwarded my e-mail around to our other roommates for “their insights”, and of course without anyone else’s saying anything he came off wounded and innocent and I came off like a monster. — Posted by Sparks

I was emailing back and forth with a “friend” about our upcoming date, and decided to raise the ante by describing the lovely red eyelet lace bra I would be wearing underneath my dark blue suit….his name and the name of my CEO are similar, and when I pressed send, I realized my smart little name feature had sent it to the CEO.

Fortunately for me, the CEO is a wonderful man with a great sense of humour….and he blushes easily, I have discovered since that day.

Oh - and the red lingerie - it worked! — Posted by Marie

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