Research – Online Behaviour

In the initial stages of my Final Major Project, I set myself the task of conducting research around the different ideas I could pursue. The research I did into online behaviour proved to be valuable once I had decided on the subject area I wanted to pursue as I included the ideas and concepts in my initial proposal and have been referring back to these ideas through the process of my creative process. I chose to read research papers sourced from online organisations, although I can’t remove all danger of bias I tried to make sure that the organisation who funded the study wouldn’t directly benefit from a particular outcome. The two research papers I found to be very useful were ‘The Online Disinihition Effect’ by John Suler, Ph.D and ‘The Impact of Anonymity in Online Communities; by Eli Omernick and Sara Owsley Sood. My notes and reflection on each paper can be seen below:


The Online Disinhibition Effect – John Suler


  • Six factors of the online disinhibition effect: dissociative anonymity, invisibility, asynchronicity, solipsistic introjection, dissociative imagination and minimisation of authority
  • Disinhibition isn’t a process of not-thinking, rather revealing the ‘true self’ underneath
  • Everyday users of the Internet have identified changes in behaviour where they feel less restrained
  • Term has emerged to characterise this change – online disinhibition effect
  • The effect works in two different ways, positive behaviour as a result is known as ‘benign disinhibition’ and negative behaviour is known as ‘toxic disinhibition’
  • Benign may reflect the attempt to understand the self better, to resolve inner problems and explore the different dimensions of identity
  • Benign could be referred to as ‘working through’, ‘self realisation’
  • Ambiguous relationship in the difference between benign and toxic, sometimes toxic behaviour is a trigger for personal growth, or a therapeutic activity, sometimes establishing a deep personal connection with an unknown person online can leave the user feeling exposed and vulnerable afterwards
  • False intimacy may develop when communicating in online spaces
  • Different online subcultures react to communication differently, what could be considered as asocial in one area of the Internet would be completely acceptable in another
  • What causes online disinhibition effect in the first place?


Dissociative anonymity:

  • It is not always easy to determine who someone is on the Internet, therefore quite often you can’t relate the actions back to a particular identity
  • Identities can be altered, withheld or completely falsified
  • Skilled individuals might be able to find out information about someone else, but at the same time be able to completely hide their own self
  • Anonymity is key principle in the online disinhibition effect because people can separate their actions from their own person
  • The dissociation means they can disregard any of their own behaviour they don’t like, they can give up the ownership because it isn’t directly associated with them
  • Online self becomes compartmentalised
  • Person can avert responsibility for abnormal behaviours
  • Superego restrictions and moral cognitive processes have been suspended in the online space
  • Some people can state that the online behaviours aren’t actually them



  • In many online spaces people can’t see each other, other people may not even know one person is present
  • It is hard to track a single individual in an online space when they are part of millions of other users, therefore the likelihood that someone is observing your specific behaviour is small
  • Invisibility gives the online user courage to express themselves in a way they wouldn’t do in physical environments
  • Power to be concealed overlaps with anonymity – however there are some differences, for example a text conversation can happen between two people who know each other, however there may still be differences in behaviour because they can’t see each other
  • The opportunity to be physically invisible is convenient to a lot of people, they don’t have to worry about their physical appearance or trying to read physical cues
  • In traditional psychoanalytic theory, the analyst sits behind the patient so the patient doesn’t feel judged by any physical cues from the analyst
  • Avoiding eye contact and face-to-face visibility disinhibits people



  • In online spaces, particularly forums, message boards, comment sections, the communication is asynchronous
  • The interaction doesn’t often take place in real time, sometimes the individual can take minutes, hours, months or years to respond
  • The ability to not having to deal with an immediate reaction disinhibits people, the act of magically suspending time allows people to become disconnected with their actions
  • In a continuous conversation, there is a feedback loop where some behaviours are reinforced and some extinguished, however this doesn’t often take place online
  • There are delays in the feedback so individuals can explore more benign or toxic areas that avert form social norms
  • Kali Munro, online psychotherapist characterises this behaviour as ’emotional hit and run’


Solipsistic Introjection:

  • Absent physical cues can alter self-boundaries
  • People may feel their mind has merged with that of their online companion
  • This can be experienced as a voice in the individual’s head which resembles that of the other person in the communication
  • The individual assigns a voice and image to this voice and the online companion is steadily incorporated into the individual’s psyche
  • The individual fills the ambiguities of this other person with their own experiences and memories, which further establishes the idea of a deep emotional connection
  • Even when online relationships are not involved, the individual may experience this communication in their own mind through fantasy-like thoughts
  • People may subconsciously experience a conversation with someone else where they ‘hear’ the secondary voice replying
  • This particular aspect of the disinhibition effect can make communication feel safer to the individual, talking with oneself can feel like confronting oneself with can resolve psychological issues


Dissociative Imagination:

  • Consciously or unconsciously, people may begin to feel the imaginary characters they have created are actually real or exist in a different space
  • That the online persona does exist in an alternate dimension along with the other online characters and personalities
  • In this dimension, the responsibilities and demands of the real world are suspended
  • Emily Finch, author and criminal lawyer of online spaces – people may see their online life as a game with norms and rules that don’t apply to everyday living
  • Once the individual has left the computer and the online space, they can turn away from all the activity that has taken place and relinquish their responsibility for such actions
  • This dissociative imagination can actually have an effect on the the real world if a person can no longer distinguish between the norms of normal environments from online environments
  • Dissociative anonymity is different from imagination although there are some similarities, where anonymity and compartmentalise the self, imagination can cause one to split off from the original self completely


Minimisation of Status and Authority:

  • Authority figures usually express this status and power in clothing, body language, material possessions
  • There is an absence of these cues in an online environment, therefore their sense of authority is reduced
  • Even if the authoritative individual may be known in an online environment, their power can be lessened and have less of an effect on the Internet
  • The Internet is a levelling field whether pretty much anyone can become involved regardless of status and power
  • Quite often in online environments, power and status is established by expressing authority in communication, writing skills and technical know-how are key tools
  • Online environments establish a peer-to-peer so individuals feel encouraged to interact with authoritative figures in a manner which they wouldn’t express in the real world
  • The net has no centralised control so this equaliser means that any individual has the opportunity to establish power in a new environment


Individual Differences and Predispositions:

  • Individual differences play a key role in the online disinhibition effect, the intensity of an individual’s own feelings can affect whether they are affected more or less, or whether they are inclined to exhibit benign or toxic behaviour
  • People with histrionic styles tend to be more open and emotional whereas compulsive personalities are often more restrained
  • The online disinhibition effect will cause small deviations from some individual’s normal behaviour and dramatic changes in other people – the reasons for each variance are still under research


Shifts Among Intra-psychic Constellations:

  • Freud’s archeological model of the mind – personality structure is formed of different layers and that a core/true self exists under all of them which does not tend to be exhibited in everyday interaction
  • Personal and cultural values determine the true aspects of someone’s personality
  • People are more willing to accept the traits which are regarded and positive or productive
  • Self centred, sexual and aggressive tendencies however are also components of personality dynamics as Freud explains
  • Superficial social roles of everyday living are necessary for functioning and serve a fundamental purpose for the individual
  • The concept of the online disinhibition effect can lead the individual astray into thinking this activity is more of a reflection of the true self however these effects can’t necessarily be controlled or mitigated
  • The self does not exist separately from the environment in which that self is expressed, all behaviours reflect a sense of self
  • Presentation is the key dynamic of what is considered personality
  • Instead of Freud’s layers, we can begin conceptualising personality as a constellation of clusters, field of emotion, memory and thinking that are connected with different environments
  • Some constellations overlap and some are disassociated with each other
  • The online disinhibition effect can then be understood as the individual shifting when online to a constellation varying from the in-person constellation with inhibited feelings of guilt, anxiety and responsibility
  • Different modalities of online communication also facilitate diverse expressions of the self, each setting can allow us to see a different side to the individual however one is not necessarily more true than the other


The Impact of Anonymity in Online Communities – Eli Omerick and Sara Owsley Sood

  • Social news websites have become a great environment for participation however the comment sections of these websites differ from physical communication
  • Some may feel discomfort, others empowerment
  • Anonymity means there is no social hierarchy
  •  Deindividuation – Stanley Milgram and Philip Zimbardo on the communication bandwidth associated with behavioural changes
  • Deindividuation is characterised by a lessening in self-awareness and accountability resulting in a lower sense of self-regulation
  • Working with technology reduces anxiety and stress by removing feelings of accountability and responsibility
  • There is a concern that social sites are getting plagued by antisocial behaviour, believed to be the effect of anonymity
  • This research paper looks at the dynamic of websites and the change of antisocial behaviour when anonymous and pseudonym activity is enabled
  • A pseudonym is a fictional personality where the online user can not only withhold their identity but create a completely new one
  • With different types of platform and website there is different rates of activity, for Disqus the pseudonym activity was the most prevalent
  • The behaviour in this study was also studied under specific terms, whether the comments were relevant, the reading level and the word usage, all were to determine what the nature of the behaviour change was (if any) once an unidentifiable facility was offered
  • There were less positive emotional words used by anonymous and pseudonym users however there was not a significant difference in the anger words used than if the user was identifiable
  • Prohibiting anonymous users actually limits participation as a large quantity of users do prefer withholding their identity
  • One conclusion drawn is that pseudonym users appear to contribute more to comment sections over identifiable and anonymous users
  • They also remain in the specific online space longer than the identifiable and anonymous users, remaining an active part of the community longer
  • There are mostly shorter responses from the identifiable users than there is from the anonymous and pseudonym users
  • There are limitations in this study however including differences in volume and site traffic between the two research periods, the different news stories that were featured on the specific social website might have provoked different responses and there is a possibility of one individual using multiple profiles to comment on a similar subject
  •  The conclusions drawn were that identifiable users tended to give answers of a better quality
  • More identity revealed less swearing, anger and affect words, with more positive emotion words and less negative emotion words.
  • Longer comment threads are associated with anonymous participation



It is definitely apparent that there is an effect on the individual when they enter the online space as explored by John Suler. My premise in my proposal that the individual is more detached with their emotions is explained in his research paper by the online disinhibition effect. However what was interesting to find out was that there are two sides to this effect, it can produce positive, productive behaviour as well as negative aggressive behaviour; this does explain the popularity and success of Internet charity campaigns as people feel detached from their money restraints and contribute to causes. The different causes of the online disinhibition effect is extremely interesting to hear about and quite disconcerting in some cases as I find that I can relate to some of the behaviour being described. Although I am not an individual that exhibits toxic behaviour I do experience a sense of courage when communicating online in a positive way, I also play out scenarios of conflict in my own head to prepare myself for if the event might happen as face-to-face communication doesn’t give you the length of time to formulate your replies as technology does. Suler’s concept of a personality being formed of constellations is brilliant and makes a lot of sense, it would explain why sometimes I feel like I am acting slightly differently with different sets of people however my underlying characteristics are the same. The truth is that we do have to alter our behaviour to suit different environments and social circles because there are different social norms and standards for these places, so why wouldn’t we have a different set of behaviours for our online activity? The danger here is that the online disinhibition effect could encourage and facilitate a more aggressive and intense environment that could endanger the individual rather than provoke personal growth. It it this disconnection from responsibility and accountability that encourages toxic and inappropriate behaviour, an aspect of the online world which I believe needs tackling and mitigating. It appears there is a gradual loss of humanity beginning in online spaces; when there is a complete loss of humanity, I would imagine that the online world would resemble a community of computers, where there is total objectivity and no compassion. Suler maintains that although the behaviour may be different in an online space, it is just as much part of that individual as their physical behaviour, this is a concept every online user needs to address. In the second study I was introduced to a new term that I hadn’t actually come across before which describes the creation of a fictional identity, something I had previously explored in the Catfish documentary. Interestingly enough it was these pseudonym users that engaged the most in online communities, suggesting that it is not anonymity that gives people a release, but the premise of acting under another identity altogether. Just like online role-playing games, people may feel that they can become someone else altogether because they are unsatisfied with their own life. This is also a contributing factor to the online disinhibition effect because the user may feel that the actions of this fictional personality are completely separate to that of their own personality because technically the identity is different. However this form of the online disinhibition effect is just as destructive as open toxic behaviour under an anonymous profile. These two research papers have started what is to be a thorough investigation into human behaviour and how identity and personality is presented when communicating online. I feel that starting with this theory-based avenue gives me a concrete understanding of the online world which I can now compliment and supplement with research from other avenues such as artist research and other books.


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