Flame wars

The New York Times has an interesting piece on flaming.

Flaming has a technical name, the �online disinhibition effect,� which psychologists apply to the many ways people behave with less restraint in cyberspace.

In a 2004 article in the journal CyberPsychology & Behavior, John Suler, a psychologist at Rider University in Lawrenceville, N.J., suggested that several psychological factors lead to online disinhibition: the anonymity of a Web pseudonym; invisibility to others; the time lag between sending an e-mail message and getting feedback; the exaggerated sense of self from being alone; and the lack of any online authority figure. Dr. Suler notes that disinhibition can be either benign � when a shy person feels free to open up online � or toxic, as in flaming.

The emerging field of social neuroscience, the study of what goes on in the brains and bodies of two interacting people, offers clues into the neural mechanics behind flaming.

This work points to a design flaw inherent in the interface between the brain�s social circuitry and the online world. In face-to-face interaction, the brain reads a continual cascade of emotional signs and social cues, instantaneously using them to guide our next move so that the encounter goes well. Much of this social guidance occurs in circuitry centered on the orbitofrontal cortex, a center for empathy. This cortex uses that social scan to help make sure that what we do next will keep the interaction on track.

I would say anonymity exacerbates this even more. If being locked in your house, your face gleaming in the pale light of your monitor, deprived of all sensory feedback is not enough, add the ability to communicate anonymously into the mix. Even more dangerous. No wonder a lot of blog flamers are “anons”.


Socially artful responses emerge largely in the neural chatter between the orbitofrontal cortex and emotional centers like the amygdala that generate impulsivity. But the cortex needs social information � a change in tone of voice, say � to know how to select and channel our impulses. And in e-mail there are no channels for voice, facial expression or other cues from the person who will receive what we say.

True, there are those cute, if somewhat lame, emoticons that cleverly arrange punctuation marks to signify an emotion. The e-mail equivalent of a mood ring, they surely lack the neural impact of an actual smile or frown. Without the raised eyebrow that signals irony, say, or the tone of voice that signals delight, the orbitofrontal cortex has little to go on. Lacking real-time cues, we can easily misread the printed words in an e-mail message, taking them the wrong way.

Hmm… I think cute/lame emoticons and smileys, while they may “lack the neural impact of an actual smile or frown”, are better than nothing. I tried giving them up after reading Jai’s rant against them. But my emails felt lifeless. My IMs felt depressed. So, I’m back to the full barrage of smileys, winkeys, dinkeys, animaticons and emoticons. Hopefully that calms down anyone who feels the burning need to flame me. 🙂