The Online Disinhibition Effect

What causes online disinhibition? What is it about cyberspace that loosens the psychological barriers that block the release of  inner feelings and needs?

You Don’t Know Me (dissociative anonymity): anonymity works wonders for the disinhibition effect. When people have the opportunity to separate their actions from their real world and identity, they feel less vulnerable about opening up

You Can’t See Me (invisibility): Invisibility gives people the courage to go places and do things that they otherwise wouldn’t. Not only that, but online you can’t see or hear the other person or their reaction to you. This can be quite therapeutic, but impersonal at the same time. In psychoanalysis, the analyst sits behind the patient in order remain a physically ambiguous figure, without revealing any body language or facial expression, so that the patient has free range to discuss whatever he or she wants, without feeling inhibited by how the analyst is physically reacting.

See You Later (asynchronicity): In email and message boards people don’t interact with each other in real time. Others may take minutes, hours, days, or even months to reply to something you say. Not having to deal with someone’s immediate reaction can be disinhibiting. In real life, it would be like saying something to someone, magically suspending time before that person can reply, and then returning to the conversation when you’re willing and able to hear the response. On the other hand, that response does not come quickly enough. This may contribute to what I like to call compulsive email checking. This is based on the principal of variable ratio schedule of reinforcement (a reinforcement schedule in which the number of responses necessary to produce reinforcement varies from trial to trial) . I will use my dogs to explain this. I let them out in the backyard to play and when I call them they don’t want to listen. They are having too much fun. So I shake a box of their favorite treats to get their attention. They come running back into the house expecting a treat. But I don’t always give them one. It works every time. Why? Because they can not predict whether or not they will get a treat so they produce the desired behavior “thinking” they will. This is the same mechanism slot machines use and it’s precisely why gambling is so addictive.

It’s All in My Head (solipsistic introjection): With online communication there is a “blending” of the minds that happens meaning your mind has merged with the mind of the online companion. The online companion now becomes a character within our intrapsychic world, a character that is shaped partly by how the person actually presents him or herself via text communication, but also by our expectations, wishes, and needs. It appears that our social interactions are more distorted than ever with the help of social media and the internet.

It’s Just a Game (dissociative imagination) Emily Finch, an author and criminal lawyer studying identity theft in cyberspace, has suggested that some people see their online life as a kind of game with rules and norms that don’t apply to everyday living (pers. comm., 2002). Once they turn off the computer and return to their daily routine, they believe they can leave that game and their game-identity behind. Why should they be held responsible for what happens in that make-believe play world that has nothing to do with reality?

Given these factors, it is easy to see how online chat rooms, gaming and role play has become so addictive. And who’s to say that’s necessarily a bad thing?


John Suler @ The Zur Institute The Online Disinhibition effect

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