The Online Disinhibition Effect: Why We Tell All Over The Internet

Matt Ridley with an excellent column in the weekend Wall Street Journal on why we feel uncomfortable about using honesty when face to face with other people but seem to have no problem being brutally honest over the net.

In many monkeys and apes, face-to-face contact is essentially antagonistic. Staring is a threat. A baboon that fails to avert its eyes when stared at by a social superior is, in effect, mounting a challenge. Appeasing a dominant animal is an essential skill for any chimpanzee wishing to avoid a costly fight. 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.”

So writing does not feel like a confrontation, whereas having to look someone in the eye and tell them the exact same thing does. Writing lacks the social cues that would otherwise tell us to back off because we’re being too frank. We’re also missing the normal social hierarchy — it feels like a peer relationship.

The phenomenon has a name: the online disinhibition effect. John Suler of Rider University, who coined the phrase, points out that, online, the cues to status and hierarchy are also missing. Just like junior apes, junior people are reluctant to say what they really think to somebody with authority for fear of disapproval and punishment. “But online, in what feels like a peer relationship—with the appearances of ‘authority’ minimized—people are much more willing to speak out or misbehave.”

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Still Curious? Matt Ridley is the author of the excellent book The Rational Optimist.