The Online Disinhibition Effect explains why the things we do on the internet are oftentimes significantly different from our actions and presence in an offline environment. Also, it’s what both trolls and empowered selves are made of.
There is no secret that in our in-person interactions we activate various facets of our inner structure and become a slightly different individual in each of our relationships. This phenomenon carries in the online world, causing both positive and negative results.
As a general rule, we seem to allow ourselves more liberties in a virtual world, while in what we would call “real-life”, meaning the physical world, we would rather tend to guard many of the expressions of our self.
For example, if you are a rather introverted individual, you may find yourself chatting non-stop to your virtual friends on social media. Or maybe you are usually a nice person to your colleagues at work, but often find yourself in the middle of heated online arguments. This are some of the results of the online disinhibition effect.
But what’s causing us to activate a more free self when we are in front of a monitor?
The FACTORS OF ONLINE DISINHIBITION* include a variety of characteristics of both context and the person’s personality, causing a highly nuanced range of magnitude and possible outcomes. Among them, we can consider the following:
- THE ANONYMITY VEIL
When you do not assume or reveal your real identity in the online world – and use a pseudonym or witty username instead, you are more likely to behave in ways that do not necessarily resemble your “usual offline self”. There is a separation between who we are online and who we are in our in-person interactions, a dissociation that allows us to reconsider the responsibility level regarding our online actions. The perceived level of responsibility is lower. The fact that the consequences of our behavior on the internet may be very different from those of our offline actions also contributes to the increased comfort that we experience in the virtual reality that we create.
The Positive Outcome: The person may feel safe and therefore may share information about themselves in an open way, a self-disclosure that may be difficult in in-person settings.
The Negative Outcome: The person may say or do things that are aggressive, or even illegal, under the protection of [at least temporary] anonymity.
- THE INVISIBILITY CLOAK
Written communication on the internet can also be considered protected by an invisibility cloak. The person conveying the message does not have to worry about their physical appearance or non-verbal cues. There are no visible reactions from either side of the communication.
The Positive Outcome: The lack of direct contact may create a secure environment for self-expression.
The Negative Outcome: Empathetic reactions see lower levels. There is no way to ‘read’ emotional responses or intentions.
- LATER, NOT NOW
When you send an email or write a blog post, the response from the reader doesn’t reach you right away. You may even not be aware of the social response regarding communication of this kind. If it doesn’t happen in real-time, then you can simply say all that you want to say and almost abandon it in a segment of the internet. Maybe never even check on the social reactions. In this type of one-way social communication, “later” becomes an opportunity.
The Positive Outcome: You can say what you want to say without worrying about the immediate reactions.
The Negative Outcome: Low levels of accountability and responsibility. The person may activate an “emotional hit and run” – K. Munro, according to Sullen, 2004.
- IN MY MIND, YOU ARE WHAT I IMAGINE YOU TO BE
Online, in written communication, especially if anonymized, we lack basic information about those people that we are talking to. So, we start filling in those gaps by adding elements that make sense for our own psyche, our own inner structure. We may imagine how the person looks like, how they sound, how they may react to certain segments of our interactions, etc. We build this person in our minds with elements that bear more of our own self than theirs. And we interact with that construct as if it would be the real person we are engaging with online.
The Positive Outcome: We probe our psyche and through the inner dialogue reveal elements about our own inner structure, our desires, needs, and goals.
The Negative Outcome: We treat a product of imagination as reality, which may cause undesirable results – ex. disappointment, unrealistic expectations – especially if that construct is significantly different from the real-life person that we think we are interacting with.
- IT’S A GAME, IT DOESN’T COUNT
Some people may treat portions of their online life as the equivalent of a highly immersive role-playing game. They become a character that they never take into their real-life or even in other parts of the internet. Their life sees double compartmentalization. One levels refers to the online/offline separation, while the second one separates two or more segments of online contexts.
The Positive Outcome: The person can experience a wider variety of contexts that they would be able to in real life.
The Negative Outcome: The person may lose themselves in a fantasy world, while the real-world becomes secondary to their life.
- STATUS: BETTER OR WORSE. EITHER WAY, NOT REAL.
Not all things can be verified about a person on the internet. Their claims could make them seem as having a different status than the one that they hold in real life. They can choose the type of financial, social, or personal context that they present to the world. The same goes for authority and professional credentials.
The Positive Outcome: A unifying effect, people may relate better, especially to figures of authority, if they seem reachable in the online world.
The Negative Outcome: People can claim anything and create a fully inauthentic persona for online use.
HOW DOES THE ONLINE DISINHIBITION APPLY TO EACH OF THE FIVE MAIN TYPES OF COMMUNICATION AND BEHAVIOR?
IF YOU ARE PREDOMINANTLY PASSIVE
- You may feel less vulnerable in the online environment and may choose to express your emotions and opinions more often and engage in more social interactions than in the offline environment. [Positive]
- Online bullying may become a real problem, since it may also allow offline bullying to perpetuate itself in more aspects of a person’s life and for a longer span of time. [Negative]
IF YOU ARE PREDOMINANTLY AGGRESSIVE
- You may not feel the need to prove your dominance as often as in offline contexts or may find an appropriate way to direct that aggressiveness toward contexts that do not harm real people. [Positive]
- You may become even more aggressive in the online environment, given the shield that it provides, even for a little while. [Negative]
IF YOU ARE PREDOMINANTLY ASSERTIVE
- Chances are that you will be more engaged in assisting others online since the environment creates access to larger audiences. [Positive]
- You let other types of behavior take over in the online environment and lose the assertiveness predominance in your communication and behaviors. [Negative]
IF YOU ARE PREDOMINANTLY PASSIVE-AGGRESSIVE
- You may choose to take responsibility for your inner feelings – discomfort, anger, etc. – and express them directly in a controlled, lower-risk environment. [Positive]
- Passive-aggressive behaviors may increase in frequency, given the many tools of the online world. For example, you may Mute the posts of a person you feel anger or envy toward, delay response when you know they are waiting for a reply from you, etc. [Negative]
IF YOU ARE PREDOMINANTLY MANIPULATIVE
- You may find the online potential gains of a manipulative context to be less rewarding, so you may decide not to activate them at all, or activate them less. [Positive]
- You use every opportunity of the online world – and there are plenty indeed, to create new and more victims of manipulation, for your own benefit. [Negative]
These are just some of the factors that contribute to the Online Disinhibition Effect and several of its potential outcomes, either positive or negative. The nuances are many though, and we will each experience this relative online freedom differently.
I also want to mention that even though we usually use “virtual life” to refer to our online interactions and “real-life” for in-person connections, the truth is that even online, even with those many masks and layers on, it is still us who show up on the internet, even if the immediate form may not seem to bear any resemblance to what we knew ourselves to be. The online environment allows different aspects of us to become more prominent, but they are already there, even offline. So, the way we behave online may become a great resource for personal analysis and growth.
This being said, just like every other context facilitated by technology, what matters most is what we make of it. It is up to us to decide how to use this newly granted freedom of the human race. Freedom that has more to do with clarity, than creativity. Online disinhibition doesn’t create new parts of us, it only shines a light on the older or fainter ones.
I suggest we make it a goal to be happy with and even proud of the reflection we get to see in that virtual mirror.
*Based on the six-factor list presented by John Suler.
Suler, John. (2004). The Online Disinhibition Effect. Cyberpsychology & behavior: the impact of the Internet, multimedia and virtual reality on behavior and society. 7. 321-6.