Absolutely zero Desi Angle (TM) here per se, but a whole heap o’ relevance for anyone who frequents the comment threads here (and if you are one of those happy souls who only reads Sepia Mutiny for the blog entries, feel free to skip this one, as I’m about to get a little parochial). But I noticed that today one of the most-emailed articles from the New York Times is an essay by Daniel Goleman on the scientific explanation for why people say, uh, intemperate things online that they would rarely say — or at least say the same way — in person. So if you’ve ever wondered what it is that causes folks on discussion boards to insult each other, call each other idiots or worse, flagrantly mis-characterize each other’s points in order to drive home some strident and ill-conceived argument of their own, and generally stink up the joint — and if you’ve perhaps caught yourself doing so, whether here on in any other online exchange — you need look no further for your answer than your orbitofrontal cortex. (I trust that one of y’all medical/scientific macacas can explain the details to the rest of us, or indeed, critique the article — politely, natch.)
The emerging field of social neuroscience, the study of what goes on in the brains and bodies of two interacting people, offers clues into the neural mechanics behind flaming.
This work points to a design flaw inherent in the interface between the brainâ€™s social circuitry and the online world. In face-to-face interaction, the brain reads a continual cascade of emotional signs and social cues, instantaneously using them to guide our next move so that the encounter goes well. Much of this social guidance occurs in circuitry centered on the orbitofrontal cortex, a center for empathy. This cortex uses that social scan to help make sure that what we do next will keep the interaction on track. (…)
Socially artful responses emerge largely in the neural chatter between the orbitofrontal cortex and emotional centers like the amygdala that generate impulsivity. But the cortex needs social information â€” a change in tone of voice, say â€” to know how to select and channel our impulses. And in e-mail there are no channels for voice, facial expression or other cues from the person who will receive what we say.
But wait, what about and and ???
True, there are those cute, if somewhat lame, emoticons that cleverly arrange punctuation marks to signify an emotion. The e-mail equivalent of a mood ring, they surely lack the neural impact of an actual smile or frown. Without the raised eyebrow that signals irony, say, or the tone of voice that signals delight, the orbitofrontal cortex has little to go on. Lacking real-time cues, we can easily misread the printed words in an e-mail message, taking them the wrong way.
And if we are typing while agitated, the absence of information on how the other person is responding makes the prefrontal circuitry for discretion more likely to fail.
TWA – Typing While Agitated. Never happens to me. No, sir. I keeps cool calm and collected. But just in case…The Times article is really about person-to-person email, although many of the points it raises extend to other kinds of online communications. However probably the more troublesome kind of social interaction deficiency that you find in online communities is the frequency of rude or thoughtless communications that are, in fact, entirely deliberate and don’t result in regret on the part of the person who issued them. This got me to wonder what work has been done on the psychology of trolling. It’s a topic that I am sure has been endlessly brought up over the years since the Internet became generalized, but this article from last year in the Israeli newspaper Haaretz seems to sum things up nicely:
“When I speak with someone and see his eyes, it is easier for me to understand that he is someone like me, with needs,” explains Weinberg. “On the Internet, you do not truly realize that opposite you is another person with his own world. The other has become text, making it hard to imagine there is a person behind the text, and not to turn him into an object. Furthermore, we extrapolate our world onto the other, attributing to him intentions he never had.”
Houminer says that many of the surfers (nicknamed “trolls”), who flood forum discussions with provocative and aggressive messages, are actually acting out their frustration at the Internet’s inability to meet their emotional needs.
“Silence and disregard are the most common forms of harm on the Internet,” continues Houminer. “A lack of response is perceived as an active refraining from supplying a need, and results in the creation of vengeful energies. A troll’s subtexts always contain a claim of injustice by someone.“
I wonder about the claim that follows, though. It seems to paint a lot of different kinds of trolling behavior with a possibly over-broad brush:
Psychologist Udi Bonstein notes that studies conducted in the U.S. show that, in many cases, people who speak aggressively online are themselves victims of aggression, on the Internet or in real life.
“This is evident in talkbacks,” says Bonstein. “People who write invectives and curses online are apparently people who do not feel strong in their lives.”
But I think many of us would agree with this bottom-line:
What is the solution? Houminer believes that an essential step in creating less hurtful relationships online is the removal of the anonymity barrier. “We need to examine whether the freedom we gain from anonymity is worth the price,” says Houminer. “When a person is only a user name, he is not much of a person.”
That rings true to me. I think I’m a lot more likely to take seriously an aggressive or possibly insulting statement when it comes from someone who, at a minimum, makes available a way of communicating with them personally (e.g., supplies an email address and responds to messages sent there). It’s much easier to give someone the benefit of the doubt when you know there exists an option for talking to them outside the performance-space of the public forum. Funkadelic (and later, EPMD) used to say, “Let’s take it to the stage, sucka!” Yet the bigger the stage and the more numerous the players who populate it, the more important it is to maintain escape hatches, back channels, side exchanges, and always, the liberating possibility of withdrawal.