The Online Disinhibition Effect And eLearning
Grigorita Ko/Shutterstock.com

The Online Disinhibition Effect And eLearning

Why do we say things to people online that we would never ever say to their face?

Many reasons. We may not know these people or have any concept of who they are. Unlike face-to-face communication, the online environment offers no social cues (facial expressions, tone of voice, gestures) to temper and tip us off to the inappropriateness or offensiveness of our words.

 

 

 

 

 

 

(Okay, I am a dog, but you may never find out since we're communicating online!)

We do not always realize that there is a sentient someone at the receiving end of our messages/pronouncement/diatribe who also has feelings: We cannot see their reaction or their hurt. We don’t know them, we don’t see them, and even if we are in an online course with them, without having met these people, we have only the most abstract concept of them as human beings. We may be having a bad day and want to vent, and the immediacy of online communication provides an outlet that amplifies our negative feelings. And, of course, we may genuinely believe that what this person wrote is quite simply the stupidest/most retrograde thing ever and they are in desperate need of edification.

The asynchronous nature of online learning, its invisibility, and the fact that online communication is often asocial and dissociative—as if we are talking to ourselves—means that we often type without thinking. We don’t modulate or filter. We often just say whatever we think and express whatever emotion we have as we are having it. Then we press “post…” and uh oh…

The Disinhibition Effect

Welcome to the online “disinhibition effect” (Suler, 2004). We have all engaged in it at one point or another when online. In face-to-face social settings, we are inhibited. We constrain our behavior through an understanding of norms of polite behavior, through self-consciousness, concern for others, anxiety, shyness, and other personal inhibitions and social cues that unconsciously govern our behavior in spaces where we are physically proximate with others.

Many times, in online settings, where the norms of communication and behavior are less clear or not at all present, we may be "disinhibited." All of the aforementioned constraints disappear and our words and behavior are driven by a lack of awareness or concern for how we communicate, how we are perceived, and how we affect others (Joinson, 1998). If you’ve taught online, you’ve encountered the online disinhibition effect at some point (either as a perpetrator or recipient!), and it is a real phenomenon, which we need to be aware of in both online learning and in other forms of online communication.

The disinhibition effect encompasses a continuum of online behaviors ranging from the positive and prosocial to the extremely negative and abusive. On the positive side, I have found over the years—and research confirms this—that shy people may communicate more in an online course than they would in a face-to-face setting. Learners are often more reflective and thoughtful online because we have to form our thoughts in writing. We have time to reflect and edit in ways we cannot do when speaking.

On the opposite, negative and antisocial, extreme side, online learners may be openly rude, racist, sexist, and homophobic. They may engage in “cyberbullying” and cause offense, in general, and emotional harm, in particular. Alternatively, they may feel a sense of invisibility and trust and ruminate “out loud,” so to speak, in ways that may be hurtful toward certain groups. Besides being personally harmful to learners, it's also generally harmful to the course as learners will often avoid engaging the “offender” in online discussions, especially if these offenses become habitual. Thus, negative disinhibited behavior can negatively affect the very essence of online learning itself.

Shedding Our Disinhibitions (Part 1 of 2)

(I'm trying to control my negative disinhibitions...No more jumping all over the keyboard!)

Two factors, in combination with one another, fuel the negative online disinhibition effect and rest at its core. The first is what Kahneman (2011) calls "System 1" or "fast" thinking. This is thinking that is reactive, instinctive and almost primeval. In contrast, "System 2” thinking is slower, more deliberative, and more logical. We all engage in this "fast thinking"—it's often our first, and instinctively, emotional reaction to an online article, a photo, or a comment. It can lead to the expression of heartfelt sentiments or to reactive angry comments.

The second is the mechanism of online communication itself. It's physically easy, effortless (just click) and instantaneous (essentially real-time). Thus, the combination of an instinctive emotional reaction and the physical ease of communicating, plus the instantaneity of online communication, accelerates and amplifies the online disinhibition effect.

Embracing Our Inhibitions

So how do we reduce the negative and toxic aspects of the “disinhibition effect” (rudeness and bullying) online while embracing its positive elements (reflection and self-disclosure)? Because the online disinhibition effect is both emotional and technical, the responses to addressing it are also largely emotional and technical. We will broach potential solutions in part two of this article.

References

Kahneman, D. (2011). Thinking, Fast and Slow. New York, NY: Farrar, Straus and Giroux.

Joinson, A. (1998). Causes and implications of disinhibited behavior on the Internet. In Gackenbach, J. (Ed.). Psychology and the Internet: Intrapersonal, interpersonal, and transpersonal implications. San Diego, CA: Academic Press, pp. 43–60.

Suler, J. (2004, November). The online disinhibition effect. In Cyberpsychology & Behavior, (7), 3. Retrieved from https://bit.ly/2ua6yEs

Close