The Online Disinhibition Effect, 20 Years Later
Written by: John Suler
As researchers like Norman Holland, Adam Joinson, and myself noted twenty years ago, people tend to say and do things online that they would not typically say and do in the in-person world. In an article that I first published in The Psychology of Cyberspace, I described six ingredients of this “online disinhibition effect.” More recently, in Psychology of the Digital Age: Humans Become Electric, I expanded those ingredients to eight.
I find it interesting that of all the many things I’ve written about cyberspace, that original article about the disinhibition effect is by far the most frequently cited. It’s also the topic that most journalists want to discuss with me. Even though there are actually very few experimental studies demonstrating the ODE, it seems to be a phenomenon that resonates with everyone. We’ve all seen people doing very disinhibited things online. We hear about it constantly in the media. Many researchers focus on such topics as trolls, cyberbullying, and cybercrime – all fueled by the ODE. The American Evangelist Rick Warren put it simply: “I just think the internet has made us ruder.”
Curiously, these concerns focus on just one of the two basic types of disinhibition: the toxic type. In that original article, I also described benign disinhibition, when people online open up in honest, non-threatening ways, perhaps to seek support from others or invite intimacy.
, as well as why some people report they can truly be themselves online, developing meaningful relationships even with companions they have never met in-person.
The Wild West
Perhaps the focus on toxic disinhibition is a sign of our times. The excitement people once felt about the internet as a place to discover new, creative, and productive ways of expressing oneself has given way to a wild west where unsavory outlaws threaten to take over, while everyone else looks on with disappointment, hesitation, worry, or amusement. Perhaps, even subconsciously, people love cyberspace precisely because it is the wild west. It offers everyone a frontier where they can carve out their own homestead, live the way they want to live, and say what they want to say. Cyberspace offers independence and freedom to be the way one wants to be – benignly honest with the best of intentions or toxically mean without having any self-reflective awareness as to why, but nevertheless inspired by the fact that our culture loves The Rebel.
As is true of many things, our attitudes about the online disinhibition reflect reality, a wish, and a fear. The reality is that humans can be friendly or hostile. The wish is our desire to be free. The fear is about what might happen when we take hold of that freedom, because the law of unintended consequences has led the traditional philosophy of net democracy, including freedom of speech, into unexpectedly disinhibited territories.
Cyberspace Made Me Do It?
Over all these years of writing, talking, and thinking about the online disinhibition effect, I’m sticking to one conclusion. With a tip of my hat to Abraham Lincoln, I’ll put it this way: You can disinhibit some of the people all of the time, and all of the people some of the time, but you can’t disinhibit all of the people all of the time. Ever since that first article, I’ve emphasized how there are many individual differences in whether or not people act disinhibited in cyberspace. The ODE affects some people a great deal, others a little, and some not at all. The same person might be more or less disinhibited depending on where that person is online and what’s happening there. Other people are MORE inhibited online, particularly those who don’t trust cyberspace – which, as our privacy and security slowly slips away into the ether of cyberspace, is a growing crowd.
Yet there’s still that temptation to hold onto the last part of Lincoln’s adage: the belief that the ODE is such a powerful force that it affects everyone. On several occasions lawyers approached me to ask my assistance in defending a client who made sexual advances online towards an underage girl who turned out to be a police officer. The lawyers wanted me to testify that the man was not fully responsible for his actions because the online disinhibition effect overpowered him. Essentially, “cyberspace made him do it.” I declined the offers to consult on those cases. The ODE may lead a person with good intentions astray, but we are still responsible for our behaviors online just as we are offline.
Unlocking the True Self?
Another idea about online disinhibition that has prevailed over the years is that it causes people to reveal their “true” self. We could draw a comparison to the effects of alcohol. Once liquor loosens up inhibitions, people might show the sensitively sentimental side of their personality – or their inner angry drunk. It’s tempting to say that disinhibition releases what people “really” think and feel inside.
But the notion of a true self can be an illusion. Our defense mechanisms that hide certain thoughts and feelings are as much a part of our personality as those hidden thoughts and feelings. So too are the reasons why we develop those defenses in the first place. If the online disinhibition effect tells us anything, it’s that personal identity is complex, expressing itself in different ways under different conditions. No one part of the self is more true than another.