It's happened to us or it's happened because of us, and it's called "flaming". That's when a person says something in an email to another person that wouldn't be said quite the same way in a face-to-face interaction. Whether the email is angry, surly, embarrassing or lewd, researchers have another name for what makes us do it: "online disinhibition effect".
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Daniel Goleman, psychologist and author of the Emotional Intelligence, published an essay in last week's New York Times offering some clues from the field of social neuroscience about why we can't seem to curb our impulses while online. He sites a 2004 study that suggests several factors contribute to 'flaming':
. . . the anonymity of a Web pseudonym; invisibility to others; the time lag between sending an e-mail message and getting feedback; the exaggerated sense of self from being alone; and the lack of any online authority figure. Dr. Suler notes that disinhibition can be either benign — when a shy person feels free to open up online — or toxic, as in flaming.
But the really interesting stuff has to do with the brain. Turns out, we're wired to keep ourselves -- for the most part -- from upsetting other people or throwing a wrench into an interaction. The hitch? Tactful social responses depend to a large extent on the circuitry between the orbitofrontal cortex (empathy center) and the amygdala (emotional center; impulses), and for that circuitry to operate well, we need to read each other's subtle emotional cues; in other words, it's a guidance system that depends on face-to-face interaction, tone of voice, or the gleam in an eye.
Goleman thinks the integration of video might give us and our brains more of the social cues we need to manage our flaming impulses. Let's hope. Do the read the article if you have a second; very interesting stuff, and it's definitely helped me stop and think about these experiences differently, which in turn helps me check my own impulses a bit!