It's well known that people say and do things in cyberspace that theywouldn't ordinarily say or do in the face-to-face world. They loosenup, feel more uninhibited, express themselves more openly. Researcherscall this the "disinhibition effect." It's a double-edged sword.Sometimes people share very personal things about themselves. Theyreveal secret emotions, fears, wishes. Or they show unusual acts ofkindness and generosity. We may call this benign disinhibition.
On the other hand, the disinhibition effect may not be so benign. Outspills rude language and harsh criticisms, anger, hatred, even threats.Or people explore the dark underworld of the internet, places ofpornography and violence, places they would never visit in the realworld. We might call this toxic disinhibition.
On the benign side, the disinhibition indicates an attempt tounderstand and explore oneself, to work through problems and find newways of being. And sometimes, in toxic disinhibition, it is simply ablind catharsis, an acting out of unsavory needs and wishes without anypersonal growth at all.
What causes this online disinhibition? What is it about cyberspace thatloosens the psychological barriers that block the release of theseinner feelings and needs? Several factors are at play. For some people,one or two of them produces the lion's share of the disinhibitioneffect. In most cases, though, these factors interact with each other,supplement each other, resulting in a more complex, amplified effect.
You Don't Know Me (dissociative anonymity)
As you move around the internet, most of the people you encounter can'teasily tell who you are. System operators and some technologicallysavvy, motivated users may be able to detect your e-mail or internetaddress, but for the most part people only know what you tell themabout yourself. If you wish, you can keep your identity hidden. As theword "anonymous" indicates, you can have no name - at least not yourreal name. That anonymity works wonders for the disinhibition effect.When people have the opportunity to separate their actions from theirreal world and identity, they feel less vulnerable about opening up.Whatever they say or do can't be directly linked to the rest of theirlives. They don't have to own their behavior by acknowledging it withinthe full context of who they "really" are. When acting out hostilefeelings, the person doesn't have to take responsibility for thoseactions. In fact, people might even convince themselves that thosebehaviors "aren't me at all." In psychology this is called"dissociation."
You Can't See Me (invisibility)
In many online environments other people cannot see you. As you browsethrough web sites, message boards, and even some chat rooms, people maynot even know you are there at all - with the possible exception of webmasters and other users who have access to software tools that candetect traffic through the site, assuming they have the inclination tokeep an eye on you, one of maybe hundreds or thousands of users.Invisibility gives people the courage to go places and do things thatthey otherwise wouldn't.
This power to be concealed overlaps with anonymity, because anonymityis the concealment of identity. But there are some importantdifferences. In text communication such as e-mail, chat, blogs, andinstant messaging, others may know a great deal about who you are.However, they still can't see or hear you - and you can't see or hearthem. Even with everyone's identity visible, the opportunity to bephysically invisible amplifies the disinhibition effect. You don't haveto worry about how you look or sound when you say (type) something. Youdon't have to worry about how others look or sound when you saysomething. Seeing a frown, a shaking head, a sigh, a bored expression,and many other subtle and not so subtle signs of disapproval orindifference can slam the breaks on what people are willing to express.In psychoanalysis, the analyst sits behind the patient in order remaina physically ambiguous figure, without revealing any body language orfacial expression, so that the patient has free range to discusswhatever he or she wants, without feeling inhibited by how the analystis physically reacting. In everyday relationships, people sometimesavert their eyes when discussing something personal and emotional. It'seasier not to look into the other's face. Text communication offers abuilt-in opportunity to keep one's eyes averted.
See You Later (asynchronicity)
In e-mail and message boards, communication is asynchronous. Peopledon't interact with each other in real time. Others may take minutes,hours, days, or even months to reply to something you say. Not havingto deal with someone's immediate reaction can be disinhibiting. In reallife, it would be like saying something to someone, magicallysuspending time before that person can reply, and then returning to theconversation when you're willing and able to hear the response.Immediate, real-time feedback from others tends to have a very powerfuleffect on the ongoing flow of how much people reveal about themselves.In e-mail and message boards, where there are delays in that feedback,people's train of thought may progress more steadily and quicklytowards deeper expressions of what they are thinking and feeling. Somepeople may even experience asynchronous communication as "running away"after posting a message that is personal, emotional, or hostile. Itfeels safe putting it "out there" where it can be left behind. In somecases, as Kali Munro, an online psychotherapist, aptly describes it,the person may be participating in an "emotional hit and run."
It's All in My Head (solipsistic introjection)
Absent f2f cues combined with text communication can have an interesting effect on people. Sometimes they feel that their mind has mergedwith the mind of the online companion. Reading another person's messagemight be experienced as a voice within one's head, as if that personmagically has been inserted or "introjected" into one's psyche. Ofcourse, we may not know what the other person's voice actually soundslike, so in our head we assign a voice to that companion. In fact,consciously or unconsciously, we may even assign a visual image to whatwe think that person looks like and how that person behaves. The onlinecompanion now becomes a character within our intrapsychic world, acharacter that is shaped partly by how the person actually presents himor herself via text communication, but also by our expectations,wishes, and needs. Because the person may even remind us of otherpeople we know, we fill in the image of that character with memories ofthose other acquaintances.
As the character now becomes more elaborate and "real" within ourminds, 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- even as if we are authors typing out a play or a novel. Actually,even when it doesn't involve online relationships, many people carry onthese kinds of conversations in their imagination throughout the day.People fantasize about flirting, arguing with a boss, or very honestlyconfronting a friend about what they feel. In their imagination, whereit's safe, people feel free to say and do all sorts of things that theywouldn't in reality. At that moment, reality IS one's imagination.Online text communication can become the psychological tapestry inwhich a person's mind weaves these fantasy role plays, usuallyunconsciously and with considerable disinhibition. All of cyberspace isa stage and we are merely players.
When reading another'smessage, it's also possible that you "hear" that person's words usingyour own voice. We may be subvocalizing as we read, thereby projectingthe sound of our voice into the other person's message. Perhapsunconsciously, it feels as if I am talking to/with myself. When we talkto ourselves, we are willing to say all sorts of things that wewouldn't say to others!
It's Just a Game (dissociative imagination)
If we combine solipsistic introjection with the escapability ofcyberspace, we get a slightly different force that magnifiesdisinhibition. People may feel that the imaginary characters they"created" exist in a different space, that one's online persona alongwith the online others live in an make-believe dimension, a dream world,separate and apart from the demands and responsibilities of the realworld. They split or "dissociate" online fiction from offline fact.Emily Finch, an author and criminal lawyer studying identity theft incyberspace, has suggested that some people see their online life as akind of game with rules and norms that don't apply to everyday living(pers. comm., 2002). Once they turn off the computer and return totheir daily routine, they believe they can leave that game and theirgame-identity behind. Why should they be held responsible for whathappens in that make-believe play world that has nothing to do withreality? After all, it isn't that different than blasting away at yourpals in a shoot-em up video game... or so some people might think,perhaps unconsciously.
Although anonymity tends to amplify dissociative imagination,dissociative imagination and dissociative anonymity usually differ inthe complexity of the dissociated part of oneself. Under the influenceof anonymity, the person may try to be invisible, to become anon-person, resulting in a reducing or simplifying of identity. Duringdissociative imagination, the self that is expressed, but split-off,tends to be more elaborate.
We're Equals (minimizing authority)
While online a person's status in the face-to-face world may not beknown to others and it may not have as much impact as it does in theface-to-face world. If people can't see you or your surroundings, theydon't know if you are the president of a major corporation sitting inyour expensive office, or some "ordinary" person lounging around athome in front of the computer. Even if people do know something aboutyour offline status and power, that elevated position may have littlebearing on your online presence and influence. In most cases, everyoneon the internet has an equal opportunity to voice him or herself.Everyone - regardless of status, wealth, race, gender, etc. - startsoff on a level playing field. Although one's status in the outsideworld ultimately may have some impact on one's powers in cyberspace,what mostly determines your influence on others is your skill incommunicating (including writing skills), your persistence, the qualityof your ideas, and your technical know-how.
People are reluctant to say what they really think as they stand beforean authority figure. A fear of disapproval and punishment from on highdampens the spirit. But online, in what feels like a peer relationship- with the appearances of "authority" minimized - people are much morewilling to speak out or misbehave.
According to traditional Internet philosophy, everyone is an equal:Peers share ideas and resources. In fact, the net itself is engineeredwith no centralized control. As it grows, with a seemingly endlesspotential for creating new environments, many people see themselves asindependent-minded explorers. This atmosphere and philosophy contributeto the minimizing of authority.
The disinhibition effect is not the only factor that determines howmuch people open up or act out in cyberspace. The strength ofunderlying feelings, needs, and drive level has a big influence on howpeople behave. Personalities also vary greatly in the strength ofdefense mechanisms and tendencies towards inhibition or expression.People with histrionic styles tend to be very open and emotional.Compulsive people are more restrained. The online disinhibition effectwill interact with these personality variables,in some cases resulting in a small deviation from the person's baseline(offline) behavior, while in other cases causing dramatic changes.
Does the disinhibition effect release inner needs, emotions, andattributes that dwell beneath surface personality presentations? Doesit reveal your "true self." For example, a woman with repressed angerunleashes her hostility online, thereby showing others how she reallyfeels. Or a shy man openly expresses his hidden affection for hiscyberspace companion.
Some people do report being more like their true self in cyberspace. Ifpersonality is constructed in layers, with a core or true self buriedbeneath surface defenses and the seemingly superficial roles ofeveryday social interactions, then does the disinhibition effectrelease that true self?
This is a tempting conclusion. In fact, the very notion of a true selfis tempting because it is useful in helping people articulate theirexperiences in how and what they express to others about themselves.The concept also works well, in a humanistic fashion, as a motivationaltool in the process of self-actualization.
However, a comprehensive psychological as well as philosophical analysis reveals complexities in this thing called selfthat stretch far beyond this tempting notion. In an in-depthexploration of the online disinhibition effect, the idea of a true selfis too ambiguous, arbitrary, and rudimentary to serve as a usefulconcept.
Personal and cultural values: Personal and cultural values often dictate what we consider the trueand false aspects of who we are. We more readily accept as valid thoseattributes that we regard as positive. An unpleasant aspect of one'spersonality is not really "me." However, sexual and aggressivetendencies, as Freud noted, are basic components of personality too, asare the psychological defenses designed to control them.
Personal and cultural values may also label the usually polite personathat we present to others during everyday living as superficial orfalse. However, this persona is the product of years of social andpsychological development. As a critical component of the ego'sconstruction and functioning, it is essential to interpersonal survivaland no less important or true than other components of intrapsychicstructure.
While online people may feel they have more opportunities to presentthemselves as they would like to present themselves, particularly inthe carefully composed text of asynchronous communication. They mayhave more chances to convey thoughts and emotions that go "deeper" thanthe seemingly superficial persona of everyday living. Theseopportunities are very valuable aspects of cyberspace, but notnecessarily evidence of a more true self. What we reveal aboutourselves spontaneously, often right on the surface for others to seebut without our being consciously awareness of it, may be just as realand true.
Some people are not fully satisfied with their in-person relationships.Perhaps they don't have opportunities to develop many relationships, orthose that did develop turned out to be unfulfilling. In cyberspacethey may find the companions they need. They feel more authentic inthose online relationships, and this becomes a viable lifestylealternative. On the other hand, some people who need to deny orrationalize the unfulfilling quality of their in-person relationshipsmay resort to a personal philosophy that idealizes the disinhibitioneffect and the notion that the true self appears online.
The inhibiting self: The concept of disinhibition may mistakenly lead us into thinking thatwhat is disinhibited is more real or true than the part of us thatinhibits. If we can just peel away repression, suppression, and otherdefense mechanisms, we will discover the "real" self that lies below.Based loosely on the kind of archeological approach to intrapsychicstructure proposed by Freud, this notion suggests that the personalityis constructed in layers, with more true or real features ofpersonality existing at a deeper level.
This is a simplistic interpretation of the much more dynamicpsychoanalytic model which states that the inhibitory processes ofrepression and defense mechanisms are components of personality no lessreal or important than others. Psychoanalytic clinicians believe thatunderstanding defenses is crucial to the success of the therapy becauseit reveals hidden thoughts, feelings, and needs. Why does a personrepress something? Why is it being inhibited? Bypassing defenses to getto the "true" self may also bypass the opportunity to discover aspectsof the inhibiting self that are just as true. When these defenses andelements of the inhibited self are worked through, remnants of themsometimes remain to serve an important function. Sometimes they evolveinto productive aspects of one's personality independent of theproblematic emotions that were originally defended.
The same is true online. Some people in some online situations becomedisinhibited and reveal aspects of themselves. However, at the sametime, they may not be not grappling with the underlying causes of thatinhibition, and therefore are missing an opportunity to discoversomething important about themselves - something very true aboutthemselves, but often unconscious. If anonymity in cyberspace easespeople's anxiety so they are more comfortable to express themselves,then they also are bypassing an essential component of who they are.Important personality dynamics are embedded in that anxiety.
People who are shy in-person may thrive in cyberspace when thedisinhibition effect allows them to express who they "truly" areinside. This is a wonderful opportunity for them. But why is Joe'sshyness a less true aspect of him compared to other features of hispersonality, especially given the fact that his shyness is a prominentfeature of his day-to-day living? If online companions, who had formedthe impression Joe was outgoing, finally met him in-person, might theynot conclude that Joe is "really" shy? And what makes him shy? Arethere underlying psychological problems and anxieties that caused it?Is it a biologically determined temperment, as much research indevelopmental psychology suggests about shyness. Aren't these possiblecauses of his shyness also true aspects of Joe? Here we see thearbitrary nature of the "true self" concept.
Compromise formations: Quite often when people are online and some aspect oftheir personality is disinhibited, some other aspect of theirpersonality is inhibited. After all, the anonymity that contributes toonline disinhibition means that the person is "without a name" -something about that person is not known. In online communication,consciously or unconsciously, people conceal or misrepresent aspects ofthemselves as often as they honestly reveal aspects of themselves. Anyparticular media encourages some aspects of identity to be expressedwhile inhibiting other aspects. Something is revealed while somethingelse is hidden. Expressions of self are compromise formations withinany particular media or communication modality. In email Joe revealsfor the first time to Sue that "I love you," but his voice and body language, which in-person might reveal unwritten dimensions and evenqualifications of his stated affection, are hidden.
This particular example also points to the polarities that operatewithin the dynamics of personality. Sometimes we act, think, or feelone way, and sometimes the opposite. We have ambivalent, sometimesopposing emotions. Online Joe says that he truly loves Sue, butin-person his voice indicates some doubt. Face-to-face he appears angryand rejecting, but online he admits that he feels insecure and guilty.Different communication environments convey different facets of thesepolarities in self. Here one side appears, and there another. Neitheris more true than another.
Each media allows for a particular expression of self that differs -sometimes greatly, sometimes subtly - from another media. In differentmedia people present a different perspective of their identity. Chat,email, blogs, videocams, telephones, face-to-face conversation, and alltypes of communication modalities, each uniquely highlight certainaspects of self expression and personal identity, while hiding others.The self expressed in one modality is not necessarily deeper, morereal, or more authentic than another. This multiple modality frameworkfor understanding the self-within-media bypasses the tendency to becomebogged down in arbitrary arguments about the location of the true orreal self.
Self Constellations Across Media
The self interacts with the environment in which it is expressed. It isnot independent of that environment. If a man suppresses his aggressionin life but expresses it online, both behaviors reflect importantaspects of his personality that surface under different conditions. Ifa woman is shy in-person but outgoing online, neither self-presentationis more true than the other. Both are dimensions of who she is, eachrevealed within a different situational context.
Instead of thinking that personality is constructed in layers with theenvironment "out there" somewhere, we can conceptualize it as anintrapsyhic field containing clusters or constellations of emotion,memory, and thinking that are interconnected with certain environments.Some constellations overlap, others are more dissociated from eachother, with environmental variables influencing those levels ofintegration and dissociation. Personality dynamics involve the complexinteractions among these various clusters within the self and inrelation to the environment. An extreme version of these dynamics occurin a multiple personality disorder, in which consciousness shiftslaterally from one constellation of personality formation to another,with strong dissociative barriers between those formations. In the more"normal" person, the distinction between the formations may be lessdramatic, and the dissociative barriers less intense, but the samealterations in identity expression does occur.
These ideas about self constellations extend as far back as William James'theory of consciousness shifting from one focus to another within afield of associations. They also are consistent with contemporarytheories about dissociation and the information processing ofexperience.
Therefore, we can think of the disinhibition effect as a personshifting to an "online" personality constellation that may bedissociated - in varying degrees, depending on the person - from thein-person constellation. Inhibiting guilt, shame, or anxiety may befeatures of the in-person self but not that online self. Thisconstellations model also helps explain other online phenomena, likeidentity experimentation, role-playing fantasy games, multitaskingprojects, and other subtle shifts in personality expression as we movefrom one online environment to another. In fact, a single disinhibited"online self" probably does not exist at all, but rather a collectionof slightly different constellations of emotion, memory, and thinkingthat surface in and interact with different types of onlineenvironments. Different communication modalities enable differentexpressions of oneself. They allow us to see the different perspectivesof that complex thing we call "identity."
This is something to keep in mind for online psychotherapy. Using amultidimensional analysis of the various features of cyberspace, a comprehensive theory of online psychotherapyexplores how the design of a computer-mediated environment allows forthe inhibition, expression, and development of different aspects of a person's identity.
Altering Self Boundary
My discussion so far rests on the assumption that almost everyoneonline tends to be disinhibited, even if the effect is small. However,this isn't necessarily the case. Some people feel guarded andsuspicious about cyberspace. You don't know who people really are, orhow exactly they may be reacting to you behind their typed words. Youdon't realize who is watching you or what they know about you. Youcan't trust everyone's intentions. In black hole situations, you 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 befallyou if you venture into the wrong environment or connect with the wrongpeople. As a result, people sometimes proceed with hesitancy andcaution.
Some vacillate between feeling disinhibited and restrained as they movein and out of the various areas of their online lifestyle. They shiftup and down what we might consider a disinhibition/inhibitioncontinuum. However, others may feel both ways simultaneously within aparticular environment or relationship. For example, you revealintimate details about yourself to someone you meet online, but youwon't give that person your phone number.
How do we explain these alternating as well as concurrent experiencesof both an open and guarded self? If we focus just on onlinedisinhibition or only on online suspiciousness, we will overlook animportant underlying psychological experience that gives rise to thisdisinhibition/inhibition polarity. That experience is "self boundary."
Self-boundary is the sense of what is me and what is not me. It's theexperience of a flexible perimeter marking the distinction between mypersonality - my thoughts, feelings, and memories - and what existsoutside that perimeter, within other people.
A variety of factors contribute to self-boundary, including theawareness of having a distinct physical body, the perception via thefive senses of an outside world, the feeling of a psychologicaldistinction between what I know versus what others know about me, andthe sensation of the physical/psychological self moving cohesivelyalong a linear continuum of past, present, and future.
Life in cyberspace tends to disrupt these factors that supportself-boundary. The physical body and its five senses no longer play ascrucial a role as in face-to-face relationships. What others know ordon't know about me is not always clear. The feeling of a linear past,present, and future becomes more obscure as we move back and forththrough synchronous and asynchronous communication. As a result, thisaltered state of consciousness in cyberspace tends to shift ordestabilize self-boundary. The distinction between inner-me andouter-other is not as clear. The person shifts to what psychoanalytictheory calls "primary process thinking" in which boundaries betweenself and other representations become more diffuse, and thinkingbecomes more subjective and emotion-centered. Within the transitionalspace of online communication, the psyches of self and other feel likethey might be overlapping. We allow the hidden self to surface becausewe no longer experience it as a purely inner self; but at the same timewe also sense, sometimes vaguely and sometimes distinctly, theintrusion of an unknown other into our private world, which results insuspicion, anxiety, and the need to defend our exposed and vulnerableintrapsychic territory.
No doubt, there are important individual differences in how peopleshift along the inhibition/disinhibition continuum. The effect ofinhibition or disinhibition might be weak or strong, depending on theperson and the situation. People might experience small or wideoscillations between the two polarities. Some might be more susceptibleto inhibition than to disinhibition, or vice versa. Studying what isrevealed or hidden about people within the wide range of onlineenvironments can become a laboratory for understanding the subtledynamics of the self.
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