The Lori Drews, the Doug Becksteads, the Charles Ed Hicks', the Jeff Dunetzs, the Dan Jacobys, the Beatrice Acevedos and all those we have exposed, will be exposed - or are out there right now feeling anonymous or omnipotent behind a keyboard.
It's well known that people say and do things in cyberspace that they wouldn't ordinarily say or do in the face-to-face world. They loosen up, feel more uninhibited, express themselves more openly. Researchers call this the "disinhibition effect." It's a double-edged sword. Sometimes people share very personal things about themselves. They reveal secret emotions, fears, wishes. Or they show unusual acts of kindness and generosity.
On the other hand, the disinhibition effect may not be so benign. Out spills rude language and harsh criticisms, anger, hatred, even threats. They can start their own website where what they think or feel reigns supreme. Or people explore the dark underworld of the internet, places of pornography and violence, places they would never visit in the real world. On the positive side, the disinhibition indicates an attempt to understand and explore oneself, to work through problems and find new ways of being. And sometimes it is simply a blind catharsis, an acting out of unsavory needs and wishes without any personal growth at all.
What causes this online disinhibition? What is it about cyberspace that loosens the psychological barriers that block the release of these inner feelings and needs? Several factors are at play. For some people, one or two of them produces the lion's share of the disinhibition effect. In most cases, though, these factors interact with each other, supplement each other, resulting in a more complex, amplified effect.
You Don't Know Me (anonymity)
As you move around the internet, most of the people you encounter can't easily tell who you are. System operators and some technologically savvy, motivated users may be able to detect your e-mail or internet address, but for the most part people only know what you tell them about yourself. If you wish, you can keep your identity hidden. As the word "anonymous" indicates, you can have no name - at least not your real name. That anonymity works wonders for the disinhibition effect. When people have the opportunity to separate their actions from their real world and identity, they feel less vulnerable about opening up. Whatever they say or do can't be directly linked to the rest of their lives. They don't have to own their behavior by acknowledging it within the full context of who they "really" are. When acting out hostile feelings, the person doesn't have to take responsibility for those actions. In fact, people might even convince themselves that those behaviors "aren't me at all." In psychology this is called "dissociation."
You Can't See Me (invisibility)
In many online environments other people cannot see you. As you browse through web sites, message boards, and even some chat rooms, people may not even know you are there at all - with the possible exception of web masters and other users who have access to software tools that can detect traffic through the site, assuming they have the inclination to keep an eye on you, one of maybe hundreds or thousands of users. Invisibility gives people the courage to go places and do things that they otherwise wouldn't.
This power to be concealed overlaps with anonymity, because anonymity is the concealment of identity. But there are some important differences. In text communication such as e-mail, chat, and instant messaging, others may know a great deal about who you are. However, they still can't see or hear you - and you can't see or hear them. Even with everyone's identity visible, the opportunity to be PHYSICALLY invisible amplifies the disinhibition effect. You don't have to worry about how you look or sound when you say (type) something. You don't have to worry about how others look or sound when you say something. 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 slam the breaks on what people are willing to express. In psychoanalysis, the analyst sits behind the patient in order remain a physically ambiguous figure, without revealing any body language or facial expression, so that the patient has free range to discuss whatever he or she wants, without feeling inhibited by how the analyst is physically reacting. In everyday relationships, people sometimes avert their eyes when discussing something personal and emotional. It's easier not to look into the other's face. Text communication offers a built-in opportunity to keep one's eyes averted.
See You Later (asynchronicity)
In e-mail and message boards, communication is asynchronous. People don't interact with each other in real time. Others may take minutes, hours, days, or even months to reply to something you say. Not having to deal with someone's immediate reaction can be disinhibiting. In real life, it would be like saying something to someone, magically suspending time before that person can reply, and then returning to the conversation when you're willing and able to hear the response. Immediate, real-time feedback from others tends to have a very powerful effect on the ongoing flow of how much people reveal about themselves. In e-mail and message boards, where there are delays in that feedback, people's train of thought may progress more steadily and quickly towards deeper expressions of what they are thinking and feeling. Some people may even experience asynchronicous communication as "running away" after posting a message that is personal, emotional, or hostile. It feels safe putting it “out there” where it can be left behind. In some cases, as Kali Munro, an online psychotherapist, aptly describes it, the person may be participating in an "emotional hit and run."
It's All in My Head (solipsistic introjection)
Absent face2face cues combined with text communication can have an interesting effect on people. Sometimes they feel that their mind has merged with the mind of the online companion. Reading another person's message might be experienced as a voice within one's head, as if that person magically has been inserted or "introjected" into one's psyche. Of course, we may not know what the other person's voice actually sounds like, so in our head we assign a voice to that companion. In fact, consciously or unconsciously, we may even assign a visual image to what we think that person looks like and how that person behaves. The online companion now becomes a character within our intrapsychic world, a character that is shaped partly by how the person actually presents him or herself via text communication, but also by our expectations, wishes, and needs. Because the person may even remind us of other people we know, we fill in the image of that character with memories of those other acquaintances.
As the character now becomes more elaborate and "real" within our minds, we may start to think, perhaps without being fully aware of it, that the typed-text conversation is all taking place within our heads, as if it's a dialogue between us and this character in our imagination - even as if we are authors typing out a play or a novel. Actually, even when it doesn't involve online relationships, many people carry on these kinds of conversations in their imagination throughout the day. People fantasize about flirting, arguing with a boss, or very honestly confronting a friend about what they feel. In their imagination, where it's safe, people feel free to say and do all sorts of things that they wouldn't in reality. At that moment, reality IS one's imagination. Online text communication can become the psychological tapestry in which a person's mind weaves these fantasy role plays, usually unconsciously and with considerable disinhibition. All of cyberspace is a stage and we are merely players.
When reading another's message, it's also possible that you "hear" that person's words using your own voice. We may be subvocalizing as we read, thereby projecting the sound of our voice into the other person's message. Perhaps unconsciously, it feels as if I am talking to/with myself. When we talk to ourselves, we are willing to say all sorts of things that we wouldn't say to others!
It's Just a Game (dissociation)
If we combine solipsistic introjection with the escapability of cyberspace, we get a slightly different force that magnifies disinhibition. People may feel that the imaginary characters they "created" exist in a different space, that one's online persona along with the online others live in an make-believe dimension, separate and apart from the demands and...
responsibilities of the real world. They split or "dissociate" online fiction from offline fact.
Emily Finch, an author and criminal lawyer studying identity theft in cyberspace, has suggested that some people see their online life as a kind of game with rules and norms that don't apply to everyday living (pers. comm., 2002). Once they turn off the computer and return to their daily routine, they believe they can leave that game and their game-identity behind. Why should they be held responsible for what happens in that make-believe play world that has nothing to do with reality? After all, it isn't that different than blasting away at your pals in a shoot-em up video game... or so some people might think, perhaps unconsciously.
We're Equals (neutralizing of status)
While online a person's status in the in-person world may not be known to others and it may not have as much impact as it does in the in-person world. If people can't see you or your surroundings, they don't know if you are the president of a major corporation sitting in your expensive office, or some "ordinary" person lounging around at home in front of the computer. Even if people do know something about your offline status and power, that elevated position may have little bearing on your online presence and influence. In most cases, everyone on the internet has an equal opportunity to voice him or herself. Everyone - regardless of status, wealth, race, gender, etc. - starts off on a level playing field. Although one's status in the outside world ultimately may have some impact on one's powers in cyberspace, what mostly determines your influence on others is your skill in communicating (including writing skills), your persistence, the quality of your ideas, and your technical know-how.
People are reluctant to say what they really think as they stand before an authority figure. A fear of disapproval and punishment from on high dampens the spirit. But online, in what feels like a peer relationship - with the appearances of "authority" minimized - people are much more willing to speak out or misbehave. There are those online that turn every disagreement into an "attack" and they can pick & choose what they want to hear and see and tune out anything that doesn't agree with their philosophy or way of thinking.
Of course, the online disinhibition effect is not the only factor that determines how much people open up or act out in cyberspace. The strength of underlying feelings, needs, and drive level has a big influence on how people behave. Personalities also vary greatly in the strength of defense mechanisms and tendencies towards inhibition or expression. People with histrionic styles tend to be very open and emotional. Compulsive people are more restrained. The online disinhibition effect will interact with these personality variables, in some cases resulting in a small deviation from the person's baseline (offline) behavior, while in other cases causing dramatic changes.
About the Author:John Suler, Ph.D. is Professor of Psychology at Rider University. This article comes from his online hypertext book The Psychology of Cyberspace which describes his ongoing research on how individuals and groups behave in cyberspace. His work has been reported by national and international media, including The New York Times, The Washington Post, the BBC, and CNN.