First printed on the Guardian, July 29, 2013
You know what I’m talking about: that moment when you get so enraged at the “wrongness” of someone’s written argument that you feel compelled to dive into a comment thread ten times longer than the original post, get angrier still at the comebacks and eventually lose your entire perspective on what is really important in life.
In How the internet has created an age of rage, Tim Adams explained that “psychologists call it ‘deindividuation’. It’s what happens when social norms are withdrawn because identities are concealed.” An experiment was run for American children at Halloween. They were invited to take sweets left in a house on a table where there was also a sum of money. When unmasked children arrived singly, only 8% of them stole any of the money. In larger groups, and in fancy dress, that number rose to 80%.
In online communication our social interaction is subject to fewer controls because the internet accords personal anonymity. It allows individuals to walk away unscathed – or at least with delayed repercussions – from their actions. But does anonymity really turn us all into savages?
Not according to psychologist Nicolas Epley of the University of Chicago, who says it’s all about perception. In 2006 he published in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology the results of a study which demonstrated that recipients could only guess correctly 50% of the time whether the sender’s intended tone was sarcastic or serious.
In “The Secret Cause of Flame Wars”, Epley explains “People often think the tone or emotion in their messages is obvious because they ‘hear’ the tone they intend in their head as they write.”
That means that comments, emails or posts initially meant to be friendly, joking or humorous can instead be interpreted as sarcastic, mocking or downright nasty. More shocking, says Epley, is that this is highly dependent on the reader’s mood and personal experiences. And where one person interprets wrongly, so others – protected by their personal anonymity, geographical separation and filled with their own desire to be right – are quick to jump on the bandwagon.
What occurs next is a Lord of the Flies paradigm. The reptilian mind, that part of our brain concerned only with our survival, takes over. People become highly concerned with their opinions being perceived as “right” and attacking others who undermine this in any way they can. But being right on the internet has nothing to do with survival does it?
In fact the mind equates “being right” with surviving. As it develops patterns which promote our survival, the mind deems these patterns to be “right” and more often than not can become blind to the distinction. Being right – so it thinks – is the way to survive (even when it is not). In the online world, protecting your reputation and your voice is survival; so much so, that if someone has made an fool of themselves in public and been proven wrong, they will – nine times out of ten – leave the forum and choose to eradicate their presence; in other words, they commit a sort of social suicide.
Even more worrying is the phenomenon when users previously attacked for their comments who comment again on other issues. Though the comments are new, others will interpret them in more negatively if they remember the user from a previous argument. This phenomenon is called confirmation bias – a natural derivation of our “objective” decision-making powers which usually helps us take mental shortcuts.
But in this instance it makes us jump to conclusions, tempting us with another opportunity to be “right”. (The same goes for those who have been identified as being “right”; their opinions are more likely to be perceived as correct in the future, even if there’s no reason why they should be – for example if the topic is outside their expertise.)
That’s the beginning of cyberbullying, which can have repercussions far beyond simply dropping out of an online forum.
Mind structures are the subject of psychologist Dr. Ron Smothermon’s 1980 book “Winning through Enlightenment”. According to his research, “being right represents successful survival ploys of the past. When they do not work, what we see is a desperate effort to use them anyway because they are so strongly associated with what worked in the past. Sometimes, people will die [or kill] in order to be right.”
Thus the longer the argument goes on in the comments, the more the mind fights desperately to be right, using every conceivable method possible. It’s why, generally, the longer a comment thread continues, the more it deteriorates into a parody of illogical and unfounded attempts to discredit the opponent(s) which may eventually lead to wild insults and even hate campaigns. Godwin’s Law is just the corollary.
In a situation where two people are trying to disprove the other’s point of view, no-one wins. Trying to convince someone else about the “rightness” of your position only means trying to create a situation where you are perceived as superior and the other person as inferior. So if you find yourself in either position, remember what your mind is trying to do… and walk away. Because if you don’t, the consequences could mean social death – or at the extreme real death – for someone. And that certainly isn’t right.
First published in The Guardian 29/07/2013