Thursday, August 9, 2012
The New Technology and Disinhibition
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.”
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.