The Online Disinhibition Effect

For those of us who have blogs and are heavily involved in social media, their benefits are easily recognizable. Their strength lies in their ability to invite and encourage communication or, as Susan Getgood writes,

“The reason blogs have traction is that they deliver on the promise of the World Wide Web. Everybody *can* be a publisher. That completely changes the equation — the ‘printing press’ is no longer scarce, limited to those with deep pockets.”

Of course, along with that discourse comes risk. As Jeremy Pepper has often said, “if you have a thin skin, you shouldn’t blog.” And he’s right. Sharing ideas, taking positions and defending them against criticism isn’t for the faint of heart. Occasionally what’s written on a blog is even challenged via lawsuit, which Kami Huyse writes about here.

But generally one presumes that challengers, critics or detractors are rational and fair responders, albeit passionate ones. However, the blogging world and other forms of social media also has its unbalanced participants.

Perhaps these individuals are a result of what psychologist John Suler (who also has a blog, The Psychology of Cyberspace) terms the Online Disinhibition Effect:

“It’s well known that people say and do things in cyberspace that they wouldn’t ordinarily say or do in the face-to-face world. They loosen up, feel more uninhibited, express themselves more openly. Researchers call this the ‘disinhibition effect.’ It’s a double-edged sword. Sometimes people share very personal things about themselves. They reveal secret emotions, fears, wishes. Or they show unusual acts of kindness and generosity. We may call this benign disinhibition.

On the other hand, the disinhibition effect may not be so benign. Out spills rude language and harsh criticisms, anger, hatred, even threats…. We might call this toxic disinhibition.

On the benign side, the disinhibition indicates an attempt to understand and explore oneself, to work through problems and find new ways of being. And sometimes, in toxic disinhibition, it is simply a blind catharsis, an acting out of unsavory needs and wishes without any personal growth at all.

What causes this online disinhibition? What is it about cyberspace that loosens the psychological barriers that block the release of these inner feelings and needs? Several factors are at play. For some people, one or two of them produces the lion’s share of the disinhibition effect. In most cases, though, these factors interact with each other, supplement each other, resulting in a more complex, amplified effect.”

Suler then outlines several factors in detail:

  • You Don’t Know Me (dissociative anonymity)
  • You Can’t See Me (invisibility)
  • See You Later (asynchronicity)
  • It’s All in My Head (solipsistic introjection)
  • It’s Just a Game (dissociative imagination)
  • We’re Equals (Minimizing Authority)

Suler’s article certainly sheds light on the inappropriate behavior occasionally seen online and is therefore well worth the read.

 

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