Internet's Illusion of Intimacy Leaves a Lot of Red Faces

The next time you fire off an angry response to a co-worker in an e-mail, only to regret it five minutes later, you can thank a phenomenon called "disinhibition." Speaking at the Fall Internet World Conference in New York earlier this month, Jane Gackenbach discussed how the anonymous nature of the Internet can produce unusual behavior. This lowering of inhibitions is similar to that experienced by people under the influence of alcohol.

"We're not talking about an intellectual sense of anonymity here," says Dr. Gackenbach, who holds a doctorate in experimental psychology. Even if the two parties know each other, such as in a discussion via corporate e-mail, Gackenbach says that there is a sense of emotional anonymity brought on by the lack of nonverbal communication, cues that would be a part of a normal conversation. "There are many examples in which we know something intellectually but still behave based on our emotions. This is just one of them."

The Internet isn't unique in evoking this response. The "bystander effect" is a well-known example: People in a crowd are less likely to assist someone in distress than if they encountered the victim alone. Gackenbach also cites crowd violence such as English football hooliganism as an example of lowered inhibition.

Gackenbach herself is no stranger to the pitfalls of online communication. Recently, she found herself responding confrontationally to a letter from her boss's boss. "I said something I certainly wouldn't have said in person." Luckily, they were able to laugh it off later, she said, but it points to the very real dangers that disinhibition can cause.

Gackenbach points out that disinhibition isn't always a bad thing. "I recently received e-mail from a colleague of mine who was dying. He was able to be more open and honest than he would have been in person."

But again, this sense of openness can cause problems, since it can also make an online romance seem more intense than one in real life. "Because of the large amount of self-disclosure involved in an online relationship, it can seem more real or important. Someone can be married to their spouse for 20 years, but still feel horribly alone. Finding someone online who you can share very intimate feelings with can be very powerful. The medium itself enhances this effect," she says. Thus, the newest twist on infidelity - "virtual affairs."

Because e-mail is so fast and easy, it doesn't provide the natural circuit breakers that calling or writing does. For that reason, Gackenbach recommends that you give yourself a cooling-off period before responding to e-mail that raises your hackles. Disinhibition and other unique social aspects of the Internet are discussed in a new book, "Psychology and the Internet" (Academic Press), to which Gackenbach was a contributor and editor.

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