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In defense of Richard Dawkins

My latest Mind and Matter column for the Wall Street Journal is on the good and the bad consequences of our surprising internet honesty:

It is now well known that people are generally accurate and (sometimes embarrassingly) honest about their personalities when profiling themselves on social-networking sites. Patients are willing to be more open about psychiatric symptoms to an automated online doctor than a real one. Pollsters find that people give more honest answers to an online survey than to one conducted by phone.

But online honesty cuts both ways. Bloggers find that readers who comment on their posts are often harshly frank but that these same rude critics become polite if contacted directly. There’s a curious pattern here that goes against old concerns over the threat of online dissembling. In fact, the mechanized medium of the Internet causes not concealment but disinhibition, giving us both confessional behavior and ugly brusqueness. When the medium is impersonal, people are prepared to be personal.

Arguably, the Catholic church has long recognized this, which is why the confessor is separated from the priest by a grill or curtain. To get people to open up about themselves, psychoanalysts used to ask their patients to lie on a couch looking away from the doctor. Most of us have experienced the phenomenon whereby we talk more freely about something intimate when walking or driving with a friend, facing forward in parallel. In interrogation scenes in movies, the interrogator often stands up and walks behind his victim at crucial moments in the conversation.

Why is this? Why do we become more honest the less we have to face each other? Posing the question may make the answer seem obvious-that we feel uncomfortable about confessing to or challenging others when face to face with them-but that begs the question: why? This is one of those cases where it is helpful to compare human beings with other species, to set our behavior in context.

In many monkeys and apes, face-to-face contact is essentially antagonistic. Staring is a threat. A baboon that fails to avert its eyes when stared at by a social superior is, in effect, mounting a challenge. Appeasing a dominant animal is an essential skill for any chimpanzee wishing to avoid a costly fight. Put two monkey strangers in a cage and they keep well apart, avoid eye contact and generally do their utmost to avoid triggering a fight. Put two people in an elevator and the same thing happens-with some verbal grooming to relieve the tension: “Cold out there today.”

Deep in our psyches, the act of writing a furious online critique of someone’s views does not feel like a confrontation, whereas telling them the same thing over the phone or face to face does. All the cues are missing that would warn us not to risk a revenge attack by being too frank.

The phenomenon has a name: the online disinhibition effect. John Suler of Rider University, who coined the phrase, points out that, online, the cues to status and hierarchy are also missing. Just like junior apes, junior people are reluctant to say what they really think to somebody with authority for fear of disapproval and punishment. “But online, in what feels like a peer relationship-with the appearances of ‘authority’ minimized-people are much more willing to speak out or misbehave.”

Internet flaming and its benign equivalent, online honesty, are a surprise. Two decades ago, most people thought the anonymity of the online world would cause an epidemic of dishonesty, just as they thought it would lead to geeky social isolation. Then along came social networking, and the Internet not only turned social but became embarrassingly honest. The greatest perils most people perceive in their children’s social networking are that they spend too much time being social and that they admit to things that will come back to haunt them when they apply for work.

By Matt Ridley | Tagged:  rational-optimist