Thursday, February 22, 2007

"Road Rage" has a nasty cousin: "Web Rage"

I almost didn't click on the link to read this article. I thought it probably wouldn't tell me anything I didn't already know.

I assumed it would conclude that anonymity on the internet was the reason people could be so rude, along with the lack of visual cues. It did mention those, but it also went further into some other details, such as the areas and functions of the human brain that rely on those visual and other kinds of cues, and how they are "blind" in cyberspace. With those restraining influences not functioning, not available to help a person judge the next appropriate response, it's easy to see how a civil conversation could be quickly derailed. Yet some people seem to better manage this cyberspace handicap than others. Why?

The essay is called "Flame First, Think Later: New Clues to E-Mail Misbehavior", By Daniel Goleman. An excerpt:

[...] Flaming has a technical name, the “online disinhibition effect,” which psychologists apply to the many ways people behave with less restraint in cyberspace.

In a 2004 article in the journal CyberPsychology & Behavior, John Suler, a psychologist at Rider University in Lawrenceville, N.J., suggested that several psychological factors lead to online disinhibition: the anonymity of a Web pseudonym; invisibility to others; the time lag between sending an e-mail message and getting feedback; the exaggerated sense of self from being alone; and the lack of any online authority figure. Dr. Suler notes that disinhibition can be either benign — when a shy person feels free to open up online — or toxic, as in flaming.

The emerging field of social neuroscience, the study of what goes on in the brains and bodies of two interacting people, offers clues into the neural mechanics behind flaming.

This work points to a design flaw inherent in the interface between the brain’s social circuitry and the online world. In face-to-face interaction, the brain reads a continual cascade of emotional signs and social cues, instantaneously using them to guide our next move so that the encounter goes well. Much of this social guidance occurs in circuitry centered on the orbitofrontal cortex, a center for empathy. This cortex uses that social scan to help make sure that what we do next will keep the interaction on track.

Research by Jennifer Beer, a psychologist at the University of California, Davis, finds that this face-to-face guidance system inhibits impulses for actions that would upset the other person or otherwise throw the interaction off. Neurological patients with a damaged orbitofrontal cortex lose the ability to modulate the amygdala, a source of unruly impulses; like small children, they commit mortifying social gaffes like kissing a complete stranger, blithely unaware that they are doing anything untoward.

Socially artful responses emerge largely in the neural chatter between the orbitofrontal cortex and emotional centers like the amygdala that generate impulsivity. But the cortex needs social information — a change in tone of voice, say — to know how to select and channel our impulses. And in e-mail there are no channels for voice, facial expression or other cues from the person who will receive what we say. [...]

It's rather a detailed explanation for how things can go off track into flaming so quickly. The article also talks about a study done with college students as test subjects, communicating with each other anonymously via computer. The study showed a shocking 20% were deliberately and needlessly rude and offensive.

I would speculate that most of that 20 percent would not have been so belligerent if they were face to face with a stranger, and therefore accountable for their behavior. The interesting question is, how much of the problem is the media of communication used, and how much is it the personalities of the individual people involved?

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