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Why People Misbehave Online

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!


Join The Conversation
Quantum-Cat Quantum-Cat 10 years
I'll admit-- I'm one of those "trolls". I used to hang out on Yahoo. To me, most trolls and flamers are like "shock jocks" on the radio. It's a game. Of course I would never actually rape a corpse or even talk about doing so in real life. I would never call someone a racial or "-phobic" name. In fact, even though I have strong feelings on immigration, gay marriage and other hotbutton issues, I generally keep my unpopular views to myself in RL. I know that if I said how I really feel, I'd be run out on a rail. However, after I read a news story or see something in RL that touches on those issues, I sometimes get so worked up that I just have to blow off steam. Or, someone might post something that I feel is so "stupid" (IMO) that it needs a stupid reply. It's all in fun, and it gives me a chance to just cut loose. Kinda like recess-- kids sit in a classroom all day, then go nuts on the playground. But when they come back into class, they are back to behaving like students again. We all need a release valve, and stupid message boards like Yahoo and the various free-speech/trolling/flaming boards (like Troll Kingdom, Troll Valhalla,, Flame4cash and others) serve that purpose for many like me.
honey31 honey31 10 years
Man I don't quite understand whats being said lol Can someone please explain it to me.
Marci Marci 10 years
The anonymity of online commenting with no serious repercussions empowers some people to get nasty. If you're looking at people face to face you're less likely to get that way because there's an immediate judgement call. I agree with Valeri that there are sites that encourage that type of behavior and really encourages it by fanning the flames. So let the people who are into that go to those sites and leave the Sugar site to the rest of us. :)
vrico2005 vrico2005 10 years
once again technology is changing the way we communicate with one another... :SMELLY:
kendalheart kendalheart 10 years
I totally see how someone gets a little braver online, you really have no consequences at the moment
grl-in-the-world grl-in-the-world 10 years
I have definitely seen these types of comments on every blogs comment section I have every visited, and for that reason I now only read the comments on the Sugar sites, where moderators keep things under control for the most part. Pinkisthenewblog's Trent actually removed the comment section from his site several months ago after so many people posted disturbing & inappropriate comments about him witnessing a terrible hit and run car accident. When people comment online, some of them do seem to turn off the part of their brain that would censor inappropriate comments. I watched a Dr. Phil episode a while back on school bullies and how now they use myspace and email to continue the bullying behaviour they perpetrate at school. They will tell a classmate everyone hates them so why don't they just go and kill themselves, things of that nature. I guess hiding behind a computer can make a small-minded person feel big and important. Thanks for posting this info DearSugar, I'm going to print the article out for my boyfriend because it's a topic we've discussed before and it's interesting to see some research going into it.
katie225 katie225 10 years
the stuff about the brain is just so interesting! see, that's why i was a psych. major. a lot of the things we do online mirror the things we do (or want to do) offline, such as making cliques and "planning" attacks, as valeri was saying. how does that saying go? "winning an argument online is like winning the special olympics"? something like that. ;)
lickety-split lickety-split 10 years
well i think that some sites actually get a rep for being "that type" of a site. have you noticed that on here if someone gets snarky other posters will immediately pop up and say "hey this isn't (insert other gossip site name here). i used to like posting to the articles on yahoo, but there were so many people that went to this sort of "script" with every story. one person wanted to ass rape the corpse, one person wanted to bash gays, one person brought up god, the next blasted god, one would be a bigot. the story could be about ANYTHING, a centuries old oak tree being cut down from dry rot and the posts would be the same. yahoo no longer has the comments section available anyway, i think people need a place to vent and figure why not do it to a stranger? it's different when it's a friend, or a cyber friend. then it seems more like an insult. i've also noticed a sort of herd mentality being very common online, including here. where one person is singled out to be ripped apart and several others jump on. that is more shocking to me, the idea of adults getting together in pm's and suites to plan an attack on another poster. there's a mental health issue or 2 there.
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