Thursday, January 26, 2006


Instapundit passed along this link re: cyber-disinhibition which, it turns out, is a short article written by Daniel Goleman, psychologist and author of Emotional Intelligence. I would never read the book as I have no interest or other connection with either intelligence or emotion. Besides, you people who work with whackos give me the heebie-jeebies. I figure that there's only the finest of lines between criminals and the people we hire to protect us from them and a similar thing can be projected out onto the shrinks.

But anyway, I wasn't going to bother reading about cyber-disinhibition but decided I would after all because, well, I remember the days pre-www when newsgroups were filled with the most remarkable flame wars over the most insignificant of things and I've always found this a mildly curious phenomenon.

The techie explanation for what I imagine we all more or less guess, is:

Communication via the Internet can mislead the brain's social systems. The key mechanisms are in the prefrontal cortex; these circuits instantaneously monitor ourselves and the other person during a live interaction, and automatically guide our responses so they are appropriate and smooth. A key mechanism for this involves circuits that ordinarily inhibit impulses for actions that would be rude or simply inappropriate — or outright dangerous.

In order for this regulatory mechanism to operate well, we depend on real-time, ongoing feedback from the other person. The Internet has no means to allow such realtime feedback (other than rarely used two-way audio/video streams). That puts our inhibitory circuitry at a loss — there is no signal to monitor from the other person. This results in disinhibition: impulse unleashed.

What seems obvious but hadn't occured to me (I don't even have a good grasp of the obvious!) is:

Such disinhibition seems state-specific, and typically occurs rarely while people are in positive or neutral emotional states. That's why the Internet works admirably for the vast majority of communication. Rather, this disinhibition becomes far more likely when people feel strong, negative emotions. What fails to be inhibited are the impulses those emotions generate.

That failure to grasp the obvious wasn't nearly as disappointing to me as learning that it hasn't been my long hard attention to self-control that has led to my paltry level of success at not allowing myself to cyber-disinhibit. All I did was get freakin' older:

The greatest danger from cyber-disinhibition may be to young people. The prefrontal inhibitory circuitry is among the last part of the brain to become fully mature, doing so sometime in the twenties. During adolescence there is a developmental lag, with teenagers having fragile inhibitory capacities, but fully ripe emotional impulsivity.

Oh well, as the saying goes getting older is preferrable to the alternative.

Oddly enough there is even a connection to a part of what was discussed in What Am I Missing? below. I won't quote that here 'cause we more or less beat it to death there, but I found it interesting (and a potential legal defense!).

The bottom line, as Goleman points out, is

As with any new technology, the Internet is an experiment in progress. It's time we considered what other such downsides of cyber-disinhibition may be emerging — and looked for a technological fix, if possible. The dangerous thought: the Internet may harbor social perils our inhibitory circuitry was not designed to handle in evolution.

When it comes to communications humans are downright masters of adaptation. I suspect we'll manage to muddle through this. Except, of course, for the youngsters who always have communications issues anyway. The only real problem comes from those who insist this.


who, me? said...

Are you aware that the lyrics link is to one of those irritating sites that won't let the user back up to the previous site -- you?

As to disinhibition -- I think the vulnerability to its results is state-specific, too. That is, there is often no non-verbal warning the flame is coming -- particularly in personal e-mails -- and users seem to settle into an altered open trance-y state after awhile staring at the screen. An unexpected insult by e-mail has magnified unpleasantness.

Knucklehead said...

Who, me?

Well, no, I wasn't aware of that. I wouldn't have guessed either since I successfully backed up from there. I dislike when that happens but I have no idea why it happens and it didn't happen for me in that case. Still, I wouldn't have thought about it anyway. I'll try to keep it in mind in the future.

Re: disinhibition, I suspect it is somewhat worse than the article suggests. Not only do we apparently lose the natural inhibitions that would keep us from flaming in other forms of communication but also lose the cues that that tell us much about what the other person is trying to communicate - we often see insult or an invitation to go all flamey when, were we face to face, we'd have cues telling us the other person was attempting humor or simply not nearly as aggressive as we interpret on the net.

That last bit was actually what I more or less attributed the phenomenon to. I figured people were just missing important cues and misinterpretting something as an attack.

Knucklehead said...

Who, me?

I just went and double checked and I can follow the link and push the back button and come right back here. I'm using Firefox 1.5 (or thereabouts, I forget).

truepeers said...

I'm sure I've annoyed a few people in my time here, for which I humbly apologize.

The thing about language, however, is that it is always inhibitory, in the sense that someone saying "*$# you", however unpleasant, is always better than the person hitting you or taking your possessions; and by being able to say it, he is, statistically, less likely to do it (if this were not true, humanity would not have survived till now). While silence may be preferable, or not, "*$# you" is better than the person actually *$#ing.

Language, by creating a sacred significance in, and referent for, its signs, allows us to focus our desire on words, images, representations. And this detached, offline, focusing on the sacred or significant is, at least for a time, inhibitory. Among humans there is always property crime, violence, and murder, but in the long run humans have become wealthier and more numerous - but also more capable of apocalyptic violence - because of language's inhibitory functions which create as yet unrealized desires that encourage us to productive work in attempts to realize or transcend the desire, more than they encourage us to actual violence (we are more inclined to use nuclear power than nuclear bombs).

Once we appreciate this, then, unlike I think the writer of this article, we are drawn to consider the phenomenon of the internet in terms of a historical evolution in the inhibitory media that have always been central to the human, rather than thinking of the internet as some wrench thrown into the workings of our natural human machine.

And in this evolution, what I think we are seeing is that the internet actually works to discount violent language, inasmuch as it also encourages it. If you get in my actual face and swear at me, the situation might devolve into fisticuffs. When you do the same on the internet, I am less threatened and the language you use is discounted in its effect or power.

"*$# you" becomes increasingly ironic or a sign of internet theatre, not something i take seriously. But eventually "*$# you" just becomes tiring, boring.

Your flaming or trolling becomes a sad joke and eventually even the saddest troll probably gets some hint of the uselessness and sadness of his once shocking language. The shock has gone. It's lost its power; it's been desacralized, just like "Bu$hitler". WHere once it could start a fight, now it can only get an occasional pathetic response from across the net.

So, the internet actually both simultaneously decreases our inhibitory mechanisms (we read "*$# you", "*$# you", seemingly ad infinitum) and increases them ("*$# you" has less and less shock effect, and is eventually discontinued). This is the pragmatic paradox of the internet.

Hmm, my word verification is "aewusy"

vnjagvet said...

The beauty of the internet is the many places available to express yourself.

Because of this, you can choose the style of expression and dialogue with which you are comfortable.

My arguing style has been shaped by my philosophy of lawyering. I was taught that when you have a good case, the facts and law will speak for themselves. It is not that rhetoric has no place, but that rhetoric only should be used to accent or enhance a well-stated legal case.

The more bs is slung, the more suspicion is raised.

Written correpondence, whether by email, blog, handwritten paper snail mail, typed correspondence, etc., has no inhibitive recipient behavior giving signals as the words are being written.

Indeed, blogging and other cybercorrespondence gives you much faster feedback than the snailmail letters common until the common use of the fax machine twenty-five years ago in business correspondence.

I tend to try to apply those principles when arguing or expostulating on the internet, figuring that snarkiness is generally less persuasive. Must be old age, I guess, but this article's information regarding the maturity of the frontal cortex helps to explain it as well.

Rick Ballard said...


It rather depends upon the context of the discussion and the imagined setting, doesn't it? Truepeers come closer to reality in my view than does the author of the piece in question. The author apparently missed the opportunity afforded to those who spent time in CW bars in their early twenties to come to a full understanding of disinhibition. The release of hostility engendered by epithetical exchanges on the net is rather tame compared to having a beer bottle broken on your head.

You are absolutely correct concerning the lack of nonverbal cues being a probable cause of the degree of heat generated in some exchanges but I believe that distance (and the safety created by it) is just as large a factor. Another factor on political blogs is the reversal in relative position occasioned by the continuing acts of blithering idiocy on the part of the neanderthalic opposition.


vnjagvet said...

Yeah, Rick, and easy access to the thesaurus features of Google, Wordperfect, etc., etc., allow for a broader vocabulary than we used to have access to in ordinary conversation(:>)(:<(

truepeers said...

Language creates desire, intent, and inhibition all at the same time. This is the paradox that always gets traditional social scientists stuck. Similarly, those who would limit our free speech always see only one side of the equation and not the other. The typical questions: do video games do more to encourage or defer young men's violence? Is speaking the violent truth about the religion of peace a good or bad idea? The question can never be conclusively answered, as both the positive and negative perspectives are true to some degree; the verdict is out as long as we remain a species that survives and reproduces itself on this earth. But maybe one day we will fail ourselves. The truth of the matter can only lead us to faith in progress through trial and error, not to hard objective science.

vnjagvet said...

But TP, is progress ever onward or three steps (or fewer) forward and two steps (or more) back?

truepeers said...

three and two, sometimes a lot of two and threes, followed by ten forward, then a few back, etc. Progress isn't linear but it's clear it happens, or we'd still be sharpening our stones for the great sacrifice next moon.

Syl said...

The prefrontal inhibitory circuitry is the most interesting part of the piece. I think the rest is simply the author's view of what affects this circuitry.

Oh, and the 'state' business too, I found enlightening.

(If I'm angry the inhibitions start to dissolve and you have no idea how many times I force myself to click on the red X in the upper corner of the browser while in the middle of composing a heated comment. It's the same as turning around and walking away. And it takes incredible will.)

As for non-verbal cues being missing in online conversations, I do not deem that as important as others do. Granted sometimes there is a need for little smiley-frowny-sneery graphics cues in some venues---venues which have actually come to depend on them. If one does not append the appropriate smiley-face in one of these venues, one is considered to be out-of-touch. Whereas other venues where people use them rarely, they seem somewhat out of place.

Which brings me to the fact that, for the most part, humans seem to adapt pretty well by using specific language and phrasing that gets their intended point across on the 'net without a shoulder shrug, wink, or hostile physical stance--or even a smiley-face, which we are evolving away from.

So, to me, the lack of verbal cues is '90's speak.

Syl said...

I mean the lack of non-verbal cues

Syl said...
This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.
Syl said...

As for 'cyber-disinhibition' itself, I think the pre-frontal business is probably spot-on. And I also think that some people have a more developed set of inhibitions than others--online or off.

Does one walk into a room of strangers and voice an opinion about something straight off, or does one wait to get a feel for the atmosphere in the room then phrase the statement appropriately?

The same with a comment section on a blog. Trolls are recognized as trolls because they just barge in and say something.

Though the slant of a comment might remain the same, for people sensitive to those around them the style will change to fit the group. Take comments at Tim Blair's (short, witty) compared to comments at Roger's (long with factual arguments) and you'll see the group dynamics at work. Doesn't mean every comment fits the pattern, but there is a pattern.

I think lack of inhibition (I'm speaking of statements here, rather than a teen-ager posing nude in front of a 'net cam which I've never thought about before) has a lot to do with whether one has any conception of how one is viewed by others--or if one even cares about such things.

Which illustrates another element: whether one just sees the computer screen in front of them, or if they imagine real people in the conversation. One can't hurt the feelings with ad hominems of someone who does not exist.

But isn't it a myth to think ad hominems are due to lack of inhibition? It's true one can't hurt another with an ad hominem, whether a 'real' person or not. The proof is that the other can throw one back at you and it won't hurt you.

And you know it.

So I think it's not that there is less inhibition but that the reason the inhibitions were there in the first place no longer hold true.

In other words, the premise is ass-backwards.

Our pre-frontal whatever recognizes that. We have adapted.
Social dynamics are still in place, just a bit modified.

Syl said...

In other words, the premise is ass-backwards.

I'm not sure I explained this sufficiently. It's not a lack of inhibition as much as a change in circumstances which define the line where inhibition is required.

Now I think the question should be: Is the adaptive change in inhibition level of online communications bleeding over into the offline world?

I think for xxxx percentage of people it is not. The switch from online in a chat room or comment section to offline at the neighbor's house or family picnic is made quite easily.

However the heightened levels of rhetoric (at least it seems that way) coming from certain quarters in government might give one pause. But I think that may have more to do with the angry 'state' they're in which would weaken their inhibitions anyway.

Knucklehead said...


That's a lot of food for thought you've put on the table. We know better than to use stick and stones but we also know snow balls and pillows are OK. And we do adapt, even evolve, at remarkable rates when it comes to communications.

The common and non-conflict use of invective is not exactly new. Young males have been communicating among one another that way for ages. Apparently young females are increasingly using it also.

I'm still not ready to concede the non-verbal cues stuff. Those of us who enjoy writing tend to practice it and seek out ways to function without the use of non-verbal cues.

I don't think that is at all the case with those who don't communicate much with written words. I think they actually become somewhat addicted to verbal cues. This may be even more acute among the young. They are so relentlessly conformist among themselves that they even ordinary common conversation seems to become physically ritualized.

You made a mildly intereesting topic quite fascinating.

I'm surprised none of our mental health professionals have weighed in on this.

Barry Dauphin said...

As with any new technology, the Internet is an experiment in progress. It's time we considered what other such downsides of cyber-disinhibition may be emerging — and looked for a technological fix, if possible. The dangerous thought: the Internet may harbor social perils our inhibitory circuitry was not designed to handle in evolution.

Well, we may understand something of the neural circuitry involved, but we've got a long way to go on that front. We lack the typical cues of feedback of all sorts (including the size of our rival). And we don't even need to go "prefrontal" to note that. Some (not all) of the disinhibition on the internet comes from the "geeks" who would never get into a bar fight if their lives depended on it but feel safe to rant to their hearts content in a comments section. It has created an outlet for aggression for many typically inhibited people. But they often have to deal with the consequences too. Whose to say that such exchanges won't ultimately improve communication, as many people also get tired of silly invectives because it is so often ineffective at achieving some of its aims.

That said, the author (whom I think does a reasonably good job discussing psychology though I have some quarrels with his work from time to time) should think a bit more about his thesis. The net is quite new when compared to the scale of evolution, but people may make adjustments quicker than he anticipates. He does not appear to be offering an idea of what kind of technological fix he envisions. In some ways, the emoticons are one technolgical innovation to assist us to add some emotional nuance to communications that can come across coldly or off-putting otherwise. However, he sounds afraid of free speech. He sounds like he wants an inhibitory technological fix. So the equipment should develop inhibitions instead of people learning the benefits of self control? That's progress?

Barry Dauphin said...

I'm surprised none of our mental health professionals have weighed in on this.

I was composing as you posted, but I don't compose very quickly. Maybe I have too much inhibitory prefrontal cortex ;>).

Eric said...

While I think Syl has a real point here: Does one walk into a room of strangers and voice an opinion about something straight off, or does one wait to get a feel for the atmosphere in the room then phrase the statement appropriately?

But it needs to be qualified with something, and that's the anonymity (generally) afforded by the internet. How often do you see the trolls start with 'anonymous' or some tag name?

I did not see that addressed in the article at all.

It has been my experience that people who post under their real name tend to 'not differentiate' between their style of discourse on line and off--this goes for whether they are circumspect, or totally obnoxious.

As a general rule, those that post under a psuedonym are more 'disinhibited' for what ever reason.

Knucklehead said...


Maybe I have too much inhibitory prefrontal cortex ;>).

Are you telling us you got a bottle infrontaya?

Barry Dauphin said...


Are you telling us you got a bottle infrontaya?

But that still doesn't mean I'd be any good in a bar fight.

Syl said...

eric blair

As a general rule, those that post under a psuedonym are more 'disinhibited' for what ever reason.

You bring up an excellent point re anonymity. Now even that has to be qualified. Only those posting as 'Anonymous' specifically and those who switch names frequently can be considered anonymous.

Others, though they may use a fake name, use that name most everywhere they go. They are thus recognizable to others.

Whether I know who 'Trinkets' is offline or not, 'Trinkets' is a recognizable person to me.

That said, I agree it's possible that 'anonymous' becomes less inhibited because he considers himself anonymous. But, on the other hand, he is too inhibited to reveal himself as either a real offline or online personality.

Knucklehead said...

The issue of anonymity is a difficult one. I chose to be "knicknonymous" (that's a great word that, IIRC, one of our fellow Yargbians coined) for several reasons.

I have specifically let some portion of those I communicate with via blogs know who I "really" am.

I don't see anonymity as either an excuse or a good reason to dismiss what people have to say. If nothing else the notion of being "knicknonymous" has a long tradition in political discourse in the US. The Federalist Papers, after all, were published knicknonymously. Clearly I don't put anything I have to say in that category, but nonetheless ;)

Syl said...


I wanted to remark on kids and verbal cues, but was called off for grocery shopping.

I agree, kids do that a lot. Even grown up kids. And they mostly gravitate to boards with a wide variety of emoticons to choose and use. :)

DAZ gave away (I think it's still free actually) an emoticon model for use in Poser and DAZ Studio. Different expression morphs included. Accessories and preset 'poses' also available.

The artists have been making great use of him. LOL Many of the avatars in the forums at DAZ use him. I saw one the other day, an animation, emotiguy was sucking his thumb and clutching a teddy bear.

So, yes, there is still a place for non-verbal communication stand-ins. But they've become entertainment as much, if not more, as a necessity.

Funny how we all speak of innovation in business and how it makes the world go round when there is as much innovation going on in other areas of society as well. In fact the entire 3D artworld is innovation on top of innovation on top of technical innovation. We all work together.

(Boy, was that a stray off topic or what?)

Syl said...

Take my grammar. Please.


as much as, more than, all messed up.

markg8 said...

I'd say this disinhibition is fomented by media figures on the right. Limbaugh, O'Reilly and Anne Coulter among others have made big money making comments like this. Poisoning a Supreme Court justice may be just a throwaway line to Anne Coulter meant to get her more PR but it encourages the wingnuts at LGF and Free Republic to go even further.

Knock off the eliminationist rhetoric and demonizing Democrats as "objectively pro Saddam" or "pro communist" for opposing the obvious incompetence and corruption of the ruling party and we'll all be better off. I don't see that happening because fear and smear is all the Republican party and it's echo chamber has to offer these days. They can't point to their record of governance and foreign policy accomplishments. We've had enough of this and we're fighting back. And if that leads to rhetoric from the left that disturbs you, well good.

Eventually the radical right will be able to take it's persecution complex, hairbrained borrow and spend economic and neocon foreign policy theories back to the backbenches of congress and thinktanks where they belong. Republicans who give a damn about deficits and realistic domestic and foreign policy will come to the fore of the party. Hopefully they will serve their purpose as a loyal opposition that keeps the Democratic party in line. But until that happens you can expect the rhetoric from both sides on the net and elsewhere to get worse.