[Clips] Flame First, Think Later: New Clues to E-Mail Misbehavior

R.A. Hettinga rah at shipwright.com
Tue Feb 20 07:59:56 PST 2007


The New York Times

February 20, 2007


Flame First, Think Later: New Clues to E-Mail Misbehavior


Jett Lucas, a 14-year-old friend, tells me the kids in his middle school
send one other a steady stream of instant messages through the day. But
there's a problem.

"Kids will say things to each other in their messages that are too
embarrassing to say in person," Jett tells me. "Then when they actually
meet up, they are too shy to bring up what they said in the message. It
makes things tense."

Jett's complaint seems to be part of a larger pattern plaguing the world of
virtual communications, a problem recognized since the earliest days of the
Internet: flaming, or sending a message that is taken as offensive,
embarrassing or downright rude.

The hallmark of the flame is precisely what Jett lamented: thoughts
expressed while sitting alone at the keyboard would be put more
diplomatically - or go unmentioned - face to face.

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

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

Research by Jennifer Beer, a psychologist at the University of California,
Davis, finds that this face-to-face guidance system inhibits impulses for
actions that would upset the other person or otherwise throw the
interaction off. Neurological patients with a damaged orbitofrontal cortex
lose the ability to modulate the amygdala, a source of unruly impulses;
like small children, they commit mortifying social gaffes like kissing a
complete stranger, blithely unaware that they are doing anything untoward.

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.

And if we are typing while agitated, the absence of information on how the
other person is responding makes the prefrontal circuitry for discretion
more likely to fail. Our emotional impulses disinhibited, we type some
infelicitous message and hit "send" before a more sober second thought
leads us to hit "discard." We flame.

Flaming can be induced in some people with alarming ease. Consider an
experiment, reported in 2002 in The Journal of Language and Social
Psychology, in which pairs of college students - strangers - were put in
separate booths to get to know each other better by exchanging messages in
a simulated online chat room.

While coming and going into the lab, the students were well behaved. But
the experimenter was stunned to see the messages many of the students sent.
About 20 percent of the e-mail conversations immediately became
outrageously lewd or simply rude.

And now, the online equivalent of road rage has joined the list of Internet
dangers. Last October, in what The Times of London described as "Britain's
first 'Web rage' attack," a 47-year-old Londoner was convicted of assault
on a man with whom he had traded insults in a chat room. He and a friend
tracked down the man and attacked him with a pickax handle and a knife.

One proposed solution to flaming is replacing typed messages with video.
The assumption is that getting a message along with its emotional nuances
might help us dampen the impulse to flame.

All this reminds me of a poster on the wall of classrooms I once visited in
New Haven public schools. The poster, part of a program in social
development that has lowered rates of violence in schools there, shows a
stoplight. It says that when students feel upset, they should remember that
the red light means to stop, calm down and think before they act. The
yellow light prompts them to weigh a range of responses, and their
consequences. The green light urges them to try the best response.

Not a bad idea. Until the day e-mail comes in video form, I may just paste
one of those stoplights next to my monitor.

Daniel Goleman is the author of "Social Intelligence: The New Science of
Human Relationships."

R. A. Hettinga <mailto: rah at ibuc.com>
The Internet Bearer Underwriting Corporation <http://www.ibuc.com/>
44 Farquhar Street, Boston, MA 02131 USA
"... however it may deserve respect for its usefulness and antiquity,
[predicting the end of the world] has not been found agreeable to
experience." -- Edward Gibbon, 'Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire'
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R. A. Hettinga <mailto: rah at ibuc.com>
The Internet Bearer Underwriting Corporation <http://www.ibuc.com/>
44 Farquhar Street, Boston, MA 02131 USA
"... however it may deserve respect for its usefulness and antiquity,
[predicting the end of the world] has not been found agreeable to
experience." -- Edward Gibbon, 'Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire'

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