Online Disinhibition Effect: Why We Express More Online

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Have you wondered what makes people ruder or meaner on the internet? Why do people resort to aggressive remarks, harshly criticize opinions, and fight over comments? Or so freely share sensitive traumatic experiences on forums? Why do people do things on the internet that they wouldn’t do offline? The answers lie in the online disinhibition effect.

online disinhibition effect capture on a phone
Photo by Kaique Rocha[1] from Pexels[2]

What is the Online Disinhibition Effect?

The online disinhibition effect[3] (ODE) occurs when we fail to regulate our impulses, feel less restrained, and feel more open to self-expression because of the anonymity and distance the internet provides. Online personas are different from real-world personas because the internet offers anonymity and psychological distance that allows us to lower our filters, increase impulsivity and aggression, and drop inhibitions. Hiding behind the screen, we feel we can do things with fewer consequences & lesser judgment.

The online disinhibition effect essentially explains the difference between our material-world behavior & internet behavior.

People tend to self-disclose[4] and express more because of perceived invisibility. The lack of real-life feedback (eye contact, physical presence), the shrugging of responsibility, the invisibility, the digital mask & shield, and the ability to trivialize consequences can make people do things they wouldn’t normally do in the offline world. Actions can’t always be traced back to a specific someone in material life. These factors also make it easy for us to share things with strangers because they are unknown.

ODE is why people become keyboard warriors or become mean and rude when they have a digital mask on. The anonymity or digital cloaks we put on, much like the invisibility cloak from harry potter, makes it easier for us to magnify our emotions. We believe we can get away without facing the consequences of our actions, shift blame, or easily disown our actions because it is harder to verify who did what. In extreme cases, the mentality is “if no one knows who I am, I don’t need to care about what I do.”

Benign vs. Toxic ODE

The ODE has positive consequences like easier self-expression[5] and negative consequences like cyberbullying[6]. The negative effects of online disinhibition like hate-speech are often called toxic disinhibition[7]. Sometimes it simply affects how people reveal themselves online (called benign ODE). For example, one study[8] found that invisibility, lack of eye-contact, and anonymity promote the usage of First-person words like “I” in revealing details about oneself.

With the online and offline lives being different from one another, relationships and marriages have an additional problem – emotional cheating via the internet. Research suggests[9] that online disinhibition explains a slowly growing attachment to another person via the internet, creating detachment or unrest in an existing relationship. Emotionally cheating partners could deny and disown their online behavior that facilitates emotional cheating. They may unconsciously justify it as communicating with someone else within their own private cyber-mental space.

Our social media behavior is both active & passive, and the ODE can affect both forms of behavior. We may passively engage in consuming content that we would feel bad about in real-life or actively voice an opinion we are too scared to disclose at a family dinner.

What causes the online disinhibition effect?

Online identity is a different “constellation” of traits & behaviors that are just different from offline identity. Neither is one’s true or original self. Both realities – online & offline create different versions of the self.

John Suler, a researcher studying internet behavior from Rider University, Lawrenceville, New Jersey, describes at least 6 factors[10] that create ODE. Studies suggest that online behavior & identity are not true reflections of character.

1. Dissociative anonymity

It is not always easy to identify a person through identity cues on the internet. People tend to obscure them or hide them. When people go online with a significant amount of anonymity, they dissociate from their real identity, making them feel less vulnerable. That discourages self-guarding behavior and encourages self-disclosing behavior. People’s online identity becomes a compartmentalized version of the self, removed from material reality. Once dissociated from reality, related morals, ethics, and norms change too. It is easier for people to shrug off responsibility for negative actions and not accept publically verifiable responsibility by denying actions, using smoke screens, or playing the blame game. You never know who is sus & faking tasks.

2. Invisibility

When dealing with just a username and text-based content like comments, posts, and surveys, there is perceived psychological & physical invisibility due to the lack of eye contact, facial expressions, body language, movement, etc. People feel gutsy, less scared, and more motivated to take risks because of that. They are less worried about how others might judge or perceive them. They feel less anxious about sharing intimate details that cause negative emotions, such as embarrassing stories, trauma, or confessions. This invisibility is one of the main reasons people create safe spaces to share their thoughts and experiences. The value of invisibility is so high in some communities that explicit rules prevent doxxing, which is the act of publishing details of someone’s identity that connect an internet message to an identifiable real person.

3. Asynchronicity

Online communication occurs asynchronously, which means it takes place with unpredictable gaps between 2 interactions. We can reply to an email in 10 days or have a real-time WhatsApp conversation that suddenly pauses for 7 hours. When we don’t wish to continue a conversation immediately, it can disinhibit us because it disconnects us from a conversational feedback loop. A continuously flowing conversation has many elements coming from multiple people that guide the conversation. The flow promotes certain conversational elements and discourages some elements. Asynchronous disconnection kills the feedback loop and prevents a natural response to an earlier message.

4. Solipsistic introjection

The lack of face-to-face cues and real-time feedback between people can lead to fuzzy self-boundaries. In some sense, other people on the internet become a part of one’s shared mind via the internet. Their thoughts feel like your own thoughts (this is called introjection), which occur within the shared cyberspace. Other’s minds feel like a part of your mind when we introject. People have aggressive or harsher thoughts within the confines of their mental space, which is separate from the outside world. Similarly, aggressive thoughts in the form of comments can be introjected and expressed within the confines of cyberspace, which has merged with one’s own psyche.

5. Dissociative imagination

One way to look at going online is escaping from reality, where people get to create their own new, modified versions. This imagined self that one portrays over the internet is disconnected from the physical self. This version of the self can evolve differently from the biological self. It could adopt new behaviors that follow a different set of rules. The motivation to create that identity could be unmet psychological needs that amplify one’s self-worth & assertiveness or fantasies and wishes that allow bold behaviors because they seem attractive. Dissociative imagination could be a coping mechanism.

6. Minimization of authority

On the internet, status & social classes are ambiguous, and social hierarchies based on age, experience, respect, fame, expertise, etc., mean little (in most contexts) unless they are particularly relevant to an online post. At most places on the internet, people have an equal opportunity to share what they want to share. Many times, such sharing is limited to particular social classes in the material world. And, authority figures can’t effectively use their authority to exert dominance the same way they can in material life using body language, clothing, voice, etc. The minimized effects of authority and status encourage people to voice their thoughts freely in ways they like; sometimes, in a crass, rebellious way, sometimes, in a judgment-free way. It helps the disadvantaged and stereotyped people express themselves freely without worrying about their real-life hurdles.

Another way to look at online disinhibition is to assess it from a psychological distance point of view. Among other things, one important aspect of psychological distance is how it affects the intensity of emotions. Increasing psychological distance makes it easier to digest stronger emotions. This has 2 effects.

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  1. People are likely to create emotionally loaded messages, thinking the distance will dilute them.
  2. People are likely to trivialize harsher messages on the internet because the distance makes it easier to digest.

Does the ODE always occur?

It seems intuitive that all of us are permanently experiencing online disinhibition at various levels based on what we do on the internet. However, research shows that sometimes the exact opposite occurs – online anonymity reduces our tendency to overshare or act emotionally. In one study[11], researchers analyzed 154 personal blogs and found that those who share their own images in the blog post tend to disclose more about their thoughts. They concluded that anonymity was linked to lesser (not more) self-disclosure, not as expected because of ODE. However, this is not completely in contrast with ODE because there is a fair chance that some people have different motivations for online behavior. Motivation to fully express oneself could include sharing photos as well as opinions where feeling “exposed” (which would normally restrict self-expression) on the internet isn’t seen as a problem.

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