"Our brain’s social systems depend on immediate feedback. "

Cyber-disinhibition

Have you ever read any of the comments written below a YouTube video? Or been on a chat board or a forum where people are expressing an opinion?  And if so, have you ever wondered why people appear to express themselves in a much more direct and uninhibited way online than they might perhaps do in a face-to-face environment?

Researchers call this tendency “cyber-disinhibition,” where we might treat others online in a vastly different manner than we would in person.

The most obvious causes of this behaviour are the anonymity that the internet can afford us and the invisibility of most online text-based interactions.  However, our neural wiring also contributes to the phenomenon.

Our brain’s social systems depend on immediate feedback.  They have evolved to deal with face-to-face interactions, during which we react quickly and unconsciously to take in an enormous range of information from our counterparty.  Our brains then send messages to our bodies about how we should respond – what we choose to say and do.  And similarly, they ward us away from a response that may be destructive to us or our counterparty.

But text-based, or invisible online interactions lack this real-time feedback loop. Where we do not have access to visuals, we receive none of the non-verbal cues necessary for emotional empathy. Instead, we must rely on cognitive empathy. This means we pick up little or none of what the other person feels and react mainly to, at best, what they say or write. From an emotional perspective, we are operating blindly and get no inhibition of impulse which in turn gives rise to “cyber-disinhibition”.

A corollary of this is the empathy deficit we experience when a participant does not have a camera on in a virtual meeting or conference.  Our brain craves the visual clues that it is used to and, if denied, can begin to fill those gaps itself.  Who has not imagined what the person whose camera is off, actually looks like?  Or whether they are listening?  Or how much they are engaged?  In response to these impossible-to-answer questions we apply assumptions and supposition which in turn can colour our judgement of the individual.  It feeds our biases and denies us the ability to be truly empathetic.

By intentionally connecting with people on a video call, with a camera on, we maximise our ability to be emotionally empathetic and minimise the risks of miscommunication and bias.  That way lies productive and meaningful relationships.

Steve Lee
Rosewell House LLP

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