Please note that this blog no longer accepts comments (there was
too much spam coming in!). If you're reading this blog and want to
respond then please use the contact form on the site.
You can also follow me on twitter.
My latest Mind and Matter column for the Wall Street Journal is
on the good and the bad consequences of our surprising internet
It is now well known that people are generally accurate and
(sometimes embarrassingly) honest about their personalities when
profiling themselves on social-networking sites. Patients are
willing to be more open about psychiatric symptoms to an automated
online doctor than a real one. Pollsters find that people give more
honest answers to an online survey than to one conducted by
But online honesty cuts both ways. Bloggers find that readers who
comment on their posts are often harshly frank but that these same
rude critics become polite if contacted directly. There's a curious
pattern here that goes against old concerns over the threat of
online dissembling. In fact, the mechanized medium of the Internet
causes not concealment but disinhibition, giving us both
confessional behavior and ugly brusqueness. When the medium is
impersonal, people are prepared to be personal.
Arguably, the Catholic church has long recognized this, which is
why the confessor is separated from the priest by a grill or
curtain. To get people to open up about themselves, psychoanalysts
used to ask their patients to lie on a couch looking away from the
doctor. Most of us have experienced the phenomenon whereby we talk
more freely about something intimate when walking or driving with a
friend, facing forward in parallel. In interrogation scenes in
movies, the interrogator often stands up and walks behind his
victim at crucial moments in the conversation.
Why is this? Why do we become more honest the less we have to face
each other? Posing the question may make the answer seem
obvious-that we feel uncomfortable about confessing to or
challenging others when face to face with them-but that begs the
question: why? This is one of those cases where it is helpful to
compare human beings with other species, to set our behavior in
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."
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.
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."
Internet flaming and its benign equivalent, online honesty, are a
surprise. Two decades ago, most people thought the anonymity of the
online world would cause an epidemic of dishonesty, just as they
thought it would lead to geeky social isolation. Then along came
social networking, and the Internet not only turned social but
became embarrassingly honest. The greatest perils most people
perceive in their children's social networking are that they spend
too much time being social and that they admit to things that will
come back to haunt them when they apply for work.