The Situationist

Internet Disinhibition: Is That Just the E-mail Talking?

Posted by Jon Hanson & Michael McCann on February 22, 2007

E-mail RageDaniel Goleman, author of the best-selling book “Social Intelligence: The New Science of Human Relationships,” has a thought-provoking essay in the New York Times on the “online disinhibition effect,” the tendency of the human brain to feel less restrained in online communication than in face-to-face or telephone communications (“Flame First, Think Later: New Clues to E-mail Misbehavior,” 2/20/2007).

While few of us knew it’s name, many of us are familiar with the effect: we tend to loosen up while e-mailing and occasionally type messages that we would be uncomfortable saying in person. Think of the “send” buttons you wished you’d never clicked or those responses that seemed, well, unresponsive. To be sure, miscommunication is inevitable in all contexts, but when the only medium conveying a message is digitized words, many of the subtle, situational features of conversation are absent.

Psychologists have identified several other reasons for the online disinhibition effect, including the exaggerated sense of self we experience while communicating alone and the time lag between sending an e-mail message and getting feedback. Persons who comment on messageboards tend to feel even less inhibited, covered as they are with Web pseudonyms. Adam Joinson, in a paper titled Causes and Implications of Disinhibited Behavior on the Internet, describes numerous situational cues that foster disinhibition.

New findings in social neuroscience shed light on the distinctions between in-person and internet communications. While the brain–and particularly the circuitry centered on the orbitofrontal cortex–reads “a continual cascade of emotional signs and social cues” in face-to-face interaction that help guide verbal responses, such information is lacking in on-line communication. We can hear a change in voice tone while speaking on the phone or see a smile turn to a frown or an eyebrow raise in mid-sentence while speaking in person (see related research on Nalini Ambady‘s “thin-slices of experience“). An e-mail provides few such cues — although there are some :). Even with such “emoticons” and “internet slang” (e.g., “lol”), they provide the orbitofrontal cortex comparatively little to work with. Without gestures, intonation, cadence, facial expressions, body language, and so on — only a tiny fragment of our “meaning” can be conveyed — and the possibility of misconstrual is heightened.

It should be noted that the norms and disinhibition of internet exchanges can be liberating. For individuals who are shy or socially awkward or those who need to choose their words carefully, for instance, the opportunity to communicate along fewer dimensions provides a freedom that face-to-face exchanges do not. Think of e-mail as alcohol without the buzz. In e-mail veritas.

It seems that evolution did not prepare the human brain for e-mail (or messageboards or maybe even blogs). That, combined with the fact that an increasing percentage of our communications occur on-line suggests some additional challenges for the law. If a “contract” is supposed to reflect the intent of the parties involved and “a meeting of their minds,” the (dispositionist) task of identifying and interpreting contracts may be more obviously challenging when the underlying communication is filtered through the net.

Regardless, the sort of hostilities that often lead to lawsuits seem likely to be enhanced because of e-mail. Consider, for example, a rather testy and well-publicized e-mail exchange that occurred between William A. Korman, a seasoned lawyer in Boston, and Dianna L. Abdala, a brand-new attorney, who was backing out of a committment to work at Korman’s lawfirm. The thrust of exchange was captured by Sacha Pfeiffer of the Boston Globe:

Korman was miffed that Abdala notified him by e-mail this month that, after tentatively agreeing to work at his law firm, she changed her mind. Her reason: “The pay you are offering would neither fulfill me nor support the lifestyle I am living.”

In his e-mail reply, Korman told Abdala that her decision not to have told him in person “smacks of immaturity and is quite unprofessional,” and noted that in anticipation of her arrival, he had ordered stationery and business cards for her, reformatted a computer, and set up an e-mail account. Nevertheless, he wrote, “I sincerely wish you the best of luck in your future endeavors.”

Her curt retort: ”A real lawyer would have put the contract into writing and not exercised any such reliance until he did so.”

His: “Thank you for the refresher course on contracts. This is not a bar exam question. You need to realize that this is a very small legal community, especially the criminal defense bar. Do you really want to start pissing off more experienced lawyers at this early stage of your career?”

Lawyers — gotta love us! But the source of the hostility reflected more than simply the lawyerly disposition to tangle and spit; the situation likely mattered too. It seems a little hard to imagine that the “Korman vs. Abdala” interchange would have taken the same tone had it occurred in person rather than electronically.

OWL, the On-Line Writing Lab at Purdue, provides these helpful suggestions for those of us who are prone to “flaming.”

Things to consider before venting in email:

  • Would I say this to this person’s face?
  • Am I putting the receiver in awkward position?no-fire-sign.jpg

  • How would I feel if I got this email message?

Usually, by the time you consider the above questions you will be calm enough to write your message with a different approach. Catching someone by surprise in a flaming message is a quick way to alienate your reader mainly because they will react with anger or embarrassment.

When it appears that a dialogue has turned into a conflict, it is best to suggest an end to the swapping of email and for you to talk or meet in person. If you receive a flaming email try to respond in a short and simple response. If that does not appease the flamer than make contact with him or her outside the virtual realm.

E-mail with care.

4 Responses to “Internet Disinhibition: Is That Just the E-mail Talking?”

  1. Doug S. said

    It’s the good old Greater Internet Fuckwad Theory.

  2. Oskar Shapley said

    “An e-mail provides few such cues”

    Humans need the emotional message behind the message to understand it. Or rather to understand the motivation of the speaker and his relation towards us (hostility or frendship).

    If we don’t get the emotional value, we guess and attach it anyway. Unfortunately we usually attribute negative emotions towards us.

  3. […] by The Situationist Staff on July 6th, 2007 In February, we examined the “Internet disinhibition effect,” the tendency of the human brain to feel less restrained in online communication than in […]

  4. […] Internet Disinhibition […]

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: