Baring It All: Exposure, Disclosure and the Online “Hit and Run”

communicating with flags

Flag semaphore –  less prone to toxic or benign disinihibition

The internet loosens our inhibitions. Dr John Suler of US Rider University researched the behavioral effects of communicating online to identify seven principles involved in the freeing of social etiquette’s hold on behavior.

Anonymity, authority and the sense of “otherness” being a few factors that are absent online that normally keeps us on our best behavior offline.

According to Dr John Suler, the Internet is a micro-blogging arena which enabes the perfectly reasonable among us to morph into behaviors that are  –

– nicer than normal

– or positively meaner

Unshackling us from the restraints of the hard-to-please task master that is social etiquette, the Internet has given rise to the phenomenon of the “disinhibition effect.” We may disinhibit nicely or not so nicely, but we disinhibit all the same.

“The Online Disinhibition Effect” published in the International Journal of Applied Psychoanalytic Studies theorizes “benign disinhibition” and “toxic disinhibition”  – the unbridled friendliness seen in online forums and the unfettered meanness that can unfold in Twitter rows.

Dr. John Suler points to the Internet’s “loosening” of the constrictive hold on our behaviour of identity, immediate feedback and the visible presence of authority commenting –

Several factors account for this loosening of the repressive barriers against underlying fantasies, needs, and affect.”

The Secret Seven

The several factors are seven which interlink to create a hot bed of opportunity for engaging in behaviors that we would normally blush at when offline. The first is the “dissociative effect” of being unknown and anonymous, bar a username and thumbnail –

  • Dissociative Anonymity
    Dr John Suler points to anonymity as the principle factor responsible for creating disinhibition. Online we are unknown entities, except for what we choose to disclose. Without a real sense of “other”, we are prone to filling in the missing parts and in essence we are communicating with part-fictional characters.
  • Invisibility
    Online, we are invisible except for our written communication. Facial or verbal clues that identify disapproval are neither seen nor heard. We engage in a silent dance of conversation where negative feedback is not received and we can plough on regardless.
  • Asynchronicity
    We do not immediately responded to people in blogs, forums and email. Online we may have a delay of a few hours, days or weeks. According to Dr John Suler, the consequence of not having to confront an immediate reaction disinhibits us. This “asynchronicty” can even gives rise to the  “emotional hit and run” – posting a message and running away –

A person feels safe putting it “out there” where it can be left behind quickly. In some cases, as Kali Munro, an online psychotherapist, aptly describes it, the person may be participating in an”emotional hit and run.”

  • Solipsistic Introjection
    Dr John Suler suggests that as we do not hear a voice in online communication, we draw the other into our internal world, applying the sound of our voice and the other to the intimate landscape which is our internal dialogue.

In cyberspace, when reading another’s message, one might also “hear” the companion’s voice as one’s own voice. In this projecting of voice, and along with it, elements of one’s self, into the other person’s text, the conversation may be experienced unconsciously as talking to or with oneself, which encourages disinhibition. Talking with oneself feels safer than talking with others. It encourages a confrontation of oneself and an unlocking of the unconscious” Dr John Suler

  • Dissociative Imagination
    We can separate our online self from our offline self and “disassociate” with what happens online. Add to this our internalising of voiceless characters, and we can soon believe that our online life, like our internal life, lives in a different space subject to different rules and laws, This, according to research is particularly the case in online fraud and deception.
  • Individual Differences
    The extent to which we are susceptible to disinhibition is variable to our differences in personality. If we are open, emotional or “histrionic”  we are more compulsive in our behaviour. “Schizotypal” personalities tend to be more prone to fanatasy.

Personality types vary greatly in the strength of reality testing, defense mechanisms, and tendencies towards inhibition or
expression.” comments Dr Jonh Suler

  • Attenuated Status and Authority
    The normal guises of status and authority; hierarchy, position, voice, and dress are less prominent in cyberspace. There is a superficial equality, bar the inequality of not having a computer/broadband to be there in the first place. However, once online there is an equality of sorts –

“Because of fear of disapproval or punishment, people are reluctant to say what they really think as they stand before an authority figure.” Dr John Suler comments, adding –

Without the authority figure, we can say what we really think. As cyberspace expands into new environments, many of its inhabitants see themselves as innovative, independent-minded explorers and pioneers, even as rebels. This atmosphere contributes to disinhibition and the minimizing of authority.” 

There’s nothing wrong with a bit of holding back on what we really think sometimes, and perhaps a touch of social restraint is just what we need to keep us all jogging along nicely and politely.

The Online Disinhibition Effect

Image: with thanks to Mzacha of RGB Free Stock.