15 June 2013

Disinhibition and the New Technology

by Elizabeth Zelvin

When I started doing psychotherapy online a dozen years ago, I learned that psychologists and other technicians had already identified what they called the disinhibition factor in the way people communicated on the Internet. In The Psychology of Cyberspace (2001, revised 2002, 2003, & 2004), psychologist John Suler, who became a collegial buddy of mine when I joined the International Society of Mental Health Online, identified various beliefs that contribute to this disinhibition when people are texting (at that time, not yet a verb in common use) online, including:
“You don’t know me.”
“You can’t see me.”
“See you later.”
“It’s all in my head.”
“It’s just a game.”
“We’re equals.”
The truth, even inevitability, of the disinhibition factor quickly became apparent to me when I became an Internet user.

Sometimes the lack of inhibition is benign, as when online therapy clients feel safer and reveal themselves more freely than they might in face-to-face therapy in an office, not to mention their daily lives. What makes these particular clients good candidates for online therapy is that they do feel safer writing and not being seen than they do in person and are at their most candid in cyberspace.

At the Sisters in Crime breakfast at Malice Domestic back in May, the woman who sat down next to me looked familiar. She was new to crime writing, and this was her first mystery convention, but we eventually figured out we knew each other from the neighborhood in New York City and had crossed paths in a non-writing area of our lives. Breakfast was over before we’d had time for much conversation. But within three days of getting home and starting to exchange emails, we had discovered several crucial interests in common, shared a lot of personal information, and were both excited about this new friendship.

Sometimes the disinhibition becomes toxic, as in the flame wars—uninhibited hostility and verbal abuse—that can spring up in online group situations such as chats and e-lists. I’ve seen flaming, on and off, in almost all of the mystery e-lists I’ve participated in for the past decade. I’ve even seen it happen in groups of online mental health professionals. On a rational level, they should know better, right? But the disinhibition isn’t rational: it’s a psychological reflex.

When we text asynchronously, as in email, cell phone texting, and on Facebook, we don’t get the constant feedback of face to face communication, small signals that we can interpret as negative reception. Part of what inhibits us in sharing our thoughts is fear of how the listener will receive them. (When we want feedback, as in a therapist’s active listening, there are text-based techniques to provide it. But that’s another story.) To Suler’s take on invisibility, “You can’t see me,” let’s add, “I can’t see you—so I don’t have to worry about what you think of what I’m saying or censor what I say to please you.”

All of the above applies to text. So how do we account for cell phone users’ habit of blatting private matters wherever they are—on the street, on line in the post office, on a crowded bus? That’s an egregious form of disinhibition. Hardened cellphonistas let it all hang out, whether the “it” is marital conflict, finances, or intimate medical details.

I find it mega-irritating when cellphonistas do it. But it’s not a new phenomenon. In New York, where I live, people have always carried on intimate conversations in restaurants and on the subway. I’ve done it myself. One of the city-dweller’s defenses is to create psychological space. Even if the physical distance between me and the strangers at the next table is only an inch or two, as I get absorbed in conversation, I easily forget they’re there. So maybe it doesn’t have as much to do with technology as we think it does.


  1. good article. wow, this takes some thought.

  2. That's an interesting link, Elizabeth, and I think you have a point there. New Yorkers tend to become inured to unpleasantries, I suppose like living in a bubble.

    One odd thing people walking down the street talking to themselves– without a cell phone. But it was even stranger when one person I encountered was a Wall Street colleague whom I knew and respected. I wonder what was going on in his inner life with its public window?

  3. When I rode the bus from my home in Richmond, CA to my job in San Francisco, I would often hear people discussing intimate details about their lives. Your article has given me some insight into such conduct. I like the term disinhibition factor.

  4. Liz, don't forget that concussions can also leave people with disinhibition.

  5. I really enjoyed this column, Elizabeth, and think you make several good points.

    Re: When we text asynchronously, as in email, cell phone texting, and on Facebook, we don’t get the constant feedback of face to face communication, small signals that we can interpret as negative reception.

    While I’ve noticed that many people find online anonymity to be liberating, I often find myself very inhibited when communicating online or via text.

    When speaking in person, for instance, I often tend to “quip” with people, which means I might say things that would read as if I were insulting them – if a person paid attention to the words, alone. But, my tone of voice, as well as body language and facial expression, tells the person I’m talking to that I’m just joking. Or, perhaps that I’m being facetious.

    And, I can tell by their small signals in return, that they get the joke. Conversely, if I receive signals of negative reception , I can quickly change-up my demeanor and let them know I didn’t mean for my statement to be taken seriously.

    Because these aspects are completely missing from an email conversation, texting, or even when posting a comment like this one, I often worry that what I’ve written will be taken in a hostile manner by the person I’m writing to. And, clearly, at times in the past, this has happened.

    In fact, when writing this post, I originally wrote a sentence that read: As for myself, I often find this to be a greater inhibiting factor when communicating through e-text. But, I changed it into the sentence: While I’ve noticed that many people find online anonymity to be liberating, I often find myself very inhibited when communicating online or via text , because I wanted to be sure everyone who read the sentence would interpret it as indicating I agreed with what you were saying, while – in it’s original form – some people might have interpreted it in a way that indicated I was strongly disagreeing with what you were saying.

    If we were all standing around speaking to each other, I’d have no concerns about “saying” the sentence I wrote, because my tonal inflections and body language would make my agreement clear. However, because I can’t put my tonal inflection on words I post, I felt compelled to change the sentence into one with less chance of being misunderstood.

  6. Dix,How to convey tone when you don't have visual and aural cues is the first thing people usually ask about online therapy (besides "How do you get paid?" Answer: Paypal--in advance). I've done a lot of training of traditional clinicians in online practice skills, and there's a broad array of ways to convey feelings and how you want the other person to take what you say--including the smiley :) and the winkie ;), which can be surprisingly nuanced if you know how to use them. Sending you a virtual hug: {{{{{Dix}}}}}. Now do you feel more comfortable or less? ;)


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