Way back in 2004 (only 13 years ago but several lifetimes in internet years), a Professor of Psychology at Rider University named John Suler wrote a paper called. In it, he identifies the two kinds of online disinhibition:
Benign disinhibition. We’re more likely to open up, show vulnerability, and share our deepest fears. We help others, and we give willingly to strangers on sites like GoFundMe and Kickstarter.
Toxic disinhibition. We’re more likely to harass, abuse, and threaten others when we can’t see their face. We indulge our darkest desires. We hurt people because it’s easy.
Suler identified eight ways in which the internet facilitates both benign and toxic disinhibition. Let’s look at three of them:
Anonymity. Have you ever visited an unfamiliar city and been intoxicated by the fact that no one knew you? You could become anyone you wanted; you could do anything. That kind of anonymity is rarely available in our real lives. Think about how you’re perceived by your family, friends, and co-workers. How often do you have the opportunity to indulge in unexpected — and potentially unwanted — thoughts, opinions, and activities?
Anonymity is a cloak. It allows us to become someone else (for better or worse), if only for the brief time that we’re online. If we’re unkind in our real lives, sometimes we’ll indulge in a bit of kindness online. And if we typically keep our opinions to ourselves, we often shout them all the louder on the internet.
Invisibility. Anonymity is a cloak that renders us—and the people we interact with—invisible. And when we don’t have to look someone in the eye it’s much, much easier to indulge our worst instincts.
“…the opportunity to be physically invisible amplifies the disinhibition effect… Seeing a frown, a shaking head, a sigh, a bored expression, and many other subtle and not so subtle signs of disapproval or indifference can inhibit what people are willing to express…”
Solipsistic Introjection & Dissociative Imagination. When we’re online, it feels like we exist only in our imagination, and the people we talk to are simply voices in our heads. And where do we feel most comfortable saying the kinds of things that we’re too scared to normally say? That’s right—in our heads, where it’s safe.
Just like retreating into our imagination, visiting the internet can be an escape from the overwhelming responsibilities of the real world. Once we’ve associated the internet with the “non-real” world, it’s much easier to say those things we wouldn’t say in real life.
“Online text communication can evolve into an introjected psychological tapestry in which a person’s mind weaves these fantasy role plays, usually unconsciously and with considerable disinhibition.”
The internet has enriched our lives in so many ways. We’re smarter (every single piece of information ever recorded can be accessed on your phone — think about that) and more connected (how many social networks do you belong to?) than ever.
We’re also dumber (how often do you mindlessly scroll through Facebook without actually reading anything?) and more isolated (we’re connected, but how well do we really know each other?)
Given that dichotomy, it makes sense that the internet brings out both the best and the worst in us. Benign disinhibition brings us together — and toxic disinhibition rips us apart.
Originally published on Quora