Thursday, August 9, 2012

The New Technology and Disinhibition

Elizabeth Zelvin

When I started doing psychotherapy online a dozen years ago, I learned that psychologists and other technicians had already identified what they called the disinhibition factor in the way people communicated on the Internet. In The Psychology of Cyberspace (2001, revised 2002, 2003, & 2004), psychologist John Suler, who became a collegial buddy of mine when I joined the International Society of Mental Health Online, identified various beliefs that contribute to this disinhibition when people are texting (at that time, not yet a verb in common use) online, including:

“You don’t know me.”
“You can’t see me.”
“See you later.”
“It’s all in my head.”
“It’s just a game.”
“We’re equals.”

The truth, even inevitability, of the disinhibition factor quickly became apparent to me when I became an Internet user.

Sometimes the lack of inhibition is benign, as when online therapy clients feel safer and reveal themselves more freely than they might in face-to-face therapy in an office, not to mention their daily lives. (What makes these particular clients good candidates for online therapy is that they do feel safer writing and not being seen than they do in person and are at their most candid in cyberspace.

Sometimes the disinhibition becomes toxic, as in the flame wars—uninhibited hostility and verbal abuse—that can spring up in online group situations such as chats and e-lists. I’ve seen flaming, on and off, in almost all of the mystery e-lists I’ve participated in for the past decade. I’ve even seen it happen in groups of online mental health professionals. On a rational level, they should know better, right? But the disinhibition isn’t rational: it’s a psychological reflex.

I’ve been enjoying email exchanges lately with a couple of people from my childhood. One is my best friend from Girl Scout camp, whom I haven’t seen or been in touch with since 1958. Our lives have gone in radically different directions, but she’s still easy to talk to, and we’ve resumed the conversation without any reserve or awkwardness. The other is a guy from high school whom I haven’t seen since 1959 and whose email address I happened to acquire through a small-world connection. This guy was the charismatic leader of my particular “crowd” in high school. We weren’t friends, but I admired and was somewhat in awe of him. His life, too, has been very different from mine, but we are talking easily via email and I’m tickled pink to be having this comfortable conversation. Finding both of these people so easy to talk to got me thinking about how everybody is easy to talk to on the Internet—in other words, the disinhibition factor. When we text asynchronously, as in email, cell phone texting, and on Facebook, we don’t get the constant feedback of face to face communication, small signals that we can interpret as negative reception. Part of what inhibits us in sharing our thoughts is fear of how the listener will receive them. (When we want feedback, as in a therapist’s active listening, there are text-based techniques to provide it. But that’s another story.) To Suler’s take on invisibility, “You can’t see me,” let’s add, “I can’t see you—so I don’t have to worry about what you think of what I’m saying or censor what I say to please you.”

All of the above applies to text. So how do we account for cell phone users’ habit of blatting private matters wherever they are—on the street, on line in the post office, on a crowded bus? That’s an egregious form of disinhibition. Hardened cellphonistas let it all hang out, whether the “it” is marital conflict, finances, or intimate medical details.

I find it mega-irritating when cellphonistas do it. But it’s not a new phenomenon. In New York, where I live, people have always carried on intimate conversations in restaurants and on the subway. I’ve done it myself. One of the city-dweller’s defenses is to create psychological space. Even if the physical distance between me and the strangers at the next table is only an inch or two, as I get absorbed in conversation, I easily forget they’re there. So maybe it doesn’t have as much to do with technology as we think it does.


Barb Goffman said...

I remember having a conversation on the school bus in high school with a friend who tried to shush me. She said other kids could hear what I was saying and could misconstrue it. I said that I wasn't friends with them so why should I care what they thought? Same thought process could apply to any private conversation held in a public space. If I don't know the people at the next table, it shouldn't matter to me if they hear me. They don't know who I am. And even if they do, so what? (Yes, I recognize that it could cross the line to share personal details that might make strangers uncomfortable. But that's a different concept.)

Regarding online communications, I view Facebook as akin to the white boards we all had on our dorm room doors in college. You can post anything you want and your friends post back. It's a friendly way to help folks keep up with what's going on with you. (Example: I've gone to dinner. Come join me.) For me, FB plays the same role. I have enough friends that someone will usually respond to something I've posted, and that's what I'm looking for - interaction. I don't need interaction from everyone on every post. Just a little something to connect with me the world.

Kris Bock said...

Very interesting, thank you.

Elizabeth Zelvin said...

Barb, the personal details are exactly the line that disinhibition makes people cross without paying conscious attention. Medical details, sexual details--I've heard it all on New York buses. And I've seen acrimonious divorces (well, one) conducted on Facebook. It didn't make me uncomfortable, because I'm a shrink, but it horrified at least one mutual friend who saw it.

Leslie Budewitz said...

Interesting, Liz. Thanks for a thought-provoking post.

You wrote that some people think, while texting or emailing, “I can’t see you—so I don’t have to worry about what you think of what I’m saying or censor what I say to please you.” But my experience is the opposite. I DO take care b/c I worry about what the other person will think. Without the gestures and expressions of f2f contact, things can be easily misunderstood -- and misunderstandings can get cemented and become harder to correct. But you're suggesting that most people, and most interchanges, are so quick that people don't think about that risk?

Elizabeth Zelvin said...

Yes, Leslie, I believe most people feel freer, not more cautious, in the absence of the visual cues--hence flaming and other evidence of disinhibition.

Elizabeth Zelvin said...

Still thinking about it: If I say something, not necessarily expecting any particular response, and you frown slightly, maybe not even consciously, I stop--without the frown, I'd keep going.

lil Gluckstern said...

I agree about the freedom that the new technology brings, but I am also a little nervous about what it has brought about. I may be a little old fashioned, but I think we have lost a lot of civility, and there are an awful lot of people who are so narcissistic that they are really ugly on some of the blogs and Facebook. I live in a small town, but I think next to New York, most places are small, and less crowded. I have learned to tune out what is being said near me, but i do find it an intrusion when other peoples' affairs are suddenly in my space.

Di Eats the Elephant said...

I suggest that the reason people are more open with personal matters is that the other person is not really in their "circle" and if they hear the personal details and still want in, they might turn out to be a good friend. But if the other person can't find me, then I should feel open about expressing what I really think or feel, because if they get violent about it and don't take it as a spirited discussion (at the worst), then they can't track me down and hold me accountable for breaching etiquette. I've never seen flaming discussions, so perhaps that's not what they're thinking, but I perhaps am more like Leslie and realize that without a lot of visual cues and physical touches (in some cases), much can be misunderstood in distant communications. Only the anonymity of "you can't find me" or "you're not really here, you're a walk-in character in the background only" would make me feel that what I discuss is acceptable. It doesn't bother me a bit if someone discusses something personal. Isn't that the best story? Real dialogue?

Sandra Parshall said...

The truth is that most people's "personal stuff" is pretty boring. Most people are boring! I don't care if you hate your mother-in-law. It doesn't matter to me if you got drunk last night and took a stranger home with you. Now, if you killed your mother-in-law, or that stranger you took home tried to kill you, I'd be interested. Anything short of that, who cares? Seeing people blather on about their personal lives on Facebook is about as riveting as listening to some actor talk about himself on TV.

Leslie Budewitz said...

Yes, most interactions are not that interesting -- but haven't all writers stolen a line or two from an overheard conversation?!!?

Sasscer Hill said...

Great blog entry, Liz. Really enjoyed it. I do try to think before I post. If I said the things that come into my head, I'd have been ruled off Facebook years ago!

Sasscer Hill

About Bobbi C. said...

Very topical, especially since I've been the victim lately of two such hateful incidents. I have wondered why people think they have the right. I've never heard the word "disinhibition" before--will look into that.

And just recently I heard a woman on a phone in a restaurant full of people go into intimate detail (in a loud voice) about her recent gynecological exam. Ugh. She had no clue!

Elizabeth Zelvin said...

Yes, Bobbi, both examples are just what I'm talking about. Disinhibition on the Internet is a psychological phenomenon that they were already talking about when I entered the online mental health field around 2000, and as I said, cell phones now are even more so. For a variety of reasons, the internal censor gets switched off.

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