While waiting to see if Congress was going to blow up the world economy by refusing to raise the debt ceiling, I distracted myself with some light diversion, thinking about why public discussion, if we can call it that, is coarser than at any time in living memory, mine anyway.
Many fingers of suspicion point at the Internet. As a typical example from “The Observer” column in The Guardian newspaper puts it, “The worldwide web has made critics of us all. But with commenters able to hide behind a cloak of anonymity, the blog and chatroom have become forums for hatred and bile”
What cries out for an explanation is why perfectly normal people, who in real life love their spouses and children and don’t kick their dogs, in the anonymous online world morph into obnoxious, hate filled creeps.
The pessimistic explanation is that our civilized offline behavior is just a fragile veneer over our real selves which, when the “online disinhibition effect” kicks in, are exposed in all their hideousness.
Kevin Dutton, Professor of Experimental Psychology at Oxford University and the author of several books, relates an experience that suggests to me, although not to him, a different explanation for the ease with which people go toxic in their anonymous online lives. His article has nothing to do with internet anonymity and its effects. But it prompted questions I can’t resist speculating about although I don’t know the answers to them.
In his research on the psychopathic personality, Dutton underwent an experiment that subjected the areas of his brain controlling emotions and involved in moral judgment to a form of magnetic stimulation. Ten or fifteen minutes into the procedure Dutton says he was in a mental state he likened to the devil-may-care bravado of drunkenness but with absolutely none of the disorientation and motor impairment. The experience was immensely appealing to him and he felt let down when it dissipated about a half-hour after the magnetic juice was turned off.
What this shows is that subjecting normal people to just the right interventions can induce in them psychological states characteristic of full-blown psychopaths. Dutton said of his experience, “So this…is how it feels to be a psychopath. To cruise through life knowing that no matter what you say or do, guilt, remorse, shame, pity, fear---all those familiar, everyday warning signals that might normally light up on your psychological dashboard—no longer trouble you.”
Now could it be that online anonymity works on our brains in something like the way the magnetic thingy worked on Dutton’s? Although he isn’t crystal clear about this, presumably what it did to him is interfere with the input required for normal functioning of the brain structures in question.
But according to John Suler, author of The Psychology of Cyberspace, that’s what happens in the online world. “…the invisibility of the Internet,” he writes, “prohibits people from reading standard social cues, small changes in facial expression, tone of voice, aversion of eyes, etc., all (of which) have specific connotations in normal face-to-face interaction.”
This is sheer conjecture on my part but maybe our anonymous online selves aren’t our “real” selves hidden under a veneer of civilization. Maybe that self is only a crippled version of us, impaired by the lack of the full, rich stream of cues required for normal brain function.
We know from other settings that putting people in environments where they interact with machines rather than with other people face-to-face alters their behavior. According to a recent New York Times story, casinos have figured out that shifting from table games overseen by human beings to screen-based games greatly boosts revenue. What they’re not eager to admit is that screen-based gambling apparently contributes to gambling addiction.
So while this can’t be the whole story, it’s a question at least worth asking whether the estimated 26 million blogs out there, where anonymous posting is the norm, mess with many of their participants’ brains in a way that turns them into the psychological equivalent of mean drunks without the penalty of a hangover in the morning, or ever.
But why should anybody hyperventilate over any of this? It’s all in good fun, right? Just folks who like to exercise their First Amendment rights anonymously.
Well, maybe not. In Doe v. Reed a bunch of people in Washington State who’d signed a petition to get an initiative on the ballot claimed a First Amendment right to remain anonymous. The United States Supreme Court, by a vote of 8 to 1, told them to take a hike.
Justice Antonin Scalia, in a separate opinion concurring with the majority, said, "Requiring people to stand up in public for their political acts fosters civic courage, without which democracy is doomed.” I’m not one of Scalia’s biggest fans, but I think he got this one dead right. When “keyboard courage” crowds out the real thing, the prospects for robust, healthy self-government don’t look real bright.