The Online Disinhibition Effect

Definition of Online Disinhibition

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It's well known that people say and do things in cyberspace that they wouldn't normally say or do face-to-face. They express themselves more openly. Researchers call this the "disinhibition effect". It's a double-edged sword. Sometimes people share very personal things about themselves very fast with people they don’t know. They reveal secret emotions, fears and wishes or they show unusual acts of kindness and generosity. We may call this benign disinhibition.

On the other hand, the disinhibition effect may not be so benign. Out spills rude language and harsh criticisms, anger, hatred, even threats. Or people explore the dark underworld of the internet, places of pornography and violence, places they would never visit in the real world. We might call this toxic disinhibition.

On the benign side, the disinhibition indicates an attempt to understand and explore oneself, to work through problems and find new ways of being. And sometimes, in toxic disinhibition, it is simply a blind catharsis, an acting out of unpleasant needs and wishes without any personal growth at all.

Factors that contribute to the Disinhibition Effect

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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... Invisibility gives people the courage to go places and do things that they otherwise wouldn't.

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It's Just a Game (dissociative imagination)

People may feel that the imaginary characters they "created" online exist in a make-believe dimension, separate and apart from the demands and responsibilities of the real world. They split or "dissociate" online fiction from offline fact.

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Altering Self Boundary

My discussion so far rests on the assumption that almost everyone online tends to be disinhibited, even if the effect is small. However, this isn't necessarily the case. Some people feel guarded and suspicious about cyberspace. You don't know who people really are, or how exactly they may be reacting to you behind their typed words. You don't realize who is watching you or what they know about you. You can't trust everyone's intentions. You may send out a message and receive no reply, for reasons not clear. Is anyone really there?

Online environments can stir uncertainty, frustration, and anxiety - even paranoia about the possible mishaps and calamities that may befall you if you venture into the wrong environment or connect with the wrong people. As a result, people sometimes proceed with hesitancy and caution.

Some people sway between feeling disinhibited and restrained as they move in and out of the various areas of their online lifestyle. However, others may feel both ways simultaneously within a particular environment or relationship. For example, you reveal intimate details about yourself to someone you meet online, but you won't give that person your phone number.

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Self-Constellations Across Media

The “self” interacts with the environment within which it is expressed. It is not independent of that environment. If a person suppresses their aggression in real life but expresses it online, both behaviours reflect important aspects of their personality that surface under different conditions. If a person is shy in person but outgoing online, neither self-presentation is truer than the other. Both are dimensions of who they are, each revealed within a different situational context.

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We're Equals (minimizing authority)

While online, a person's social status in the face-to-face world may not be known to others, and it may not have as much impact as it does in the face-to-face 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.

People are reluctant to say what they really think as they stand before an authority figure. But online, in what feels like a peer relationship - with the appearances of "authority" minimised - people are much more willing to speak out (in a rude way) or misbehave.

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It's All in My Head (solipsistic introjection)

Absent face to face 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...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 own mind...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.

When reading another person’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!

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Personality Variables

The 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, have a big influence on how people behave. Personalities also vary greatly in the strength of defence mechanisms, and tendencies towards inhibition or expression... The online disinhibition effect will interact with these personality variables, in some cases resulting in a small deviation from the person's baseline (offline) behaviour, while in other cases causing dramatic changes.

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Personal and cultural values

Personal and cultural values often dictate what we consider the true and false aspects of who we are. We more readily accept as valid those attributes that we regard as positive. An unpleasant aspect of one's personality is not really "me." However, sexual and aggressive tendencies, as Freud noted, are basic components of personality too, as are the psychological defences designed to control them.

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True Self?

Does the disinhibition effect release inner needs, emotions, and attributes that dwell beneath surface personality presentations? Does it reveal your "true self”?

For example, someone with repressed anger unleashes their hostility online, thereby showing others how they really feel. Or a shy person openly expresses their hidden affection for their cyberspace companion.

Some people do report being more like their true self in cyberspace. If personality is constructed in layers, with a core or true self buried beneath surface defences, and the seemingly superficial roles of everyday social interactions, then does the disinhibition effect release that true self?

This is a tempting conclusion. In fact, the very notion of a true self is tempting because it is useful in helping people articulate their experiences in how and what they express to others about themselves. The concept also works well, in a humanistic fashion, as a motivational tool in the process of self-actualization.

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See You Later

In email and message boards (forums), communication is asynchronous. People don't interact with each other in real time. Other people 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.

Some people may even experience asynchronous 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."

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You Don't Know Me
(dissociative anonymity)

As you move around the internet, most of the people you encounter can't easily tell who you are...for the most part people only know what you tell them about yourself. If you wish, you can keep your identity hidden...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.

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