Shan Lakhmani | September 29, 2012
I was making dinner one night while my roommate was playing Call of Duty on his PlayStation 3. As I was cutting onions, angry high schoolers were saying some very unkind things to him. By the time they had started to question his sexuality, I had started thinking: Why are there so many jerks on the internet? Well, there are a number of factors, including the fact that some people just genuinely feel better after behaving in ways that are antisocial. However, we will be focusing on a particular factor of computer-mediated communication that influences user behavior: Anonymity.
When people are assured of their anonymity, they tend to act with fewer inhibitions. When trick-or-treaters are sure of their own anonymity, they are three times more likely to steal candy when given the chance . Anonymity or being immersed in a large group can elicit a state known as deindividuation . This basic principle has had been referred to as Deindividuation  or Online Disinhibition in the academic literature, and has even been referenced on the popular webcomic Penny Arcade , albeit satirically. Regardless of what you call it, this state of anonymity can help people overcome social and psychological inhibitions . Unfortunately, these inhibitions are often in place for a reason. Deindividuation has been the proposed cause of riots and other deviant behavior . Not only can deindividuation lead people to act less inhibited, but this state can also lead people to behave in ways not normal to them.
Certain social environments are more likely to lead to deindividuation than others; rallies, riots, and parades are all instances where deindividuation may occur. Digital environments, such as online games, chat rooms, and other instances of computer mediated communication, are contexts which facilitate certain kinds of communication, while inhibiting other kinds, thus creating an environment that is more likely to lead to deindividuation. Online games, for example, provide anonymity (hiding behind an avatar) and reduce social feedback (limited non-verbal cues), both of which are conditions that lead to deindividuation [1, 4]. The computer mediation actually lulls users into a state where they are more inclined follow through with impulses they’d normally quash.
photo © Jennifer Daniel and Sandi Daniel, [source NYT]
Online gaming communities often have to deal with anti-social behavior from their own ranks, in the form of grief play. Grief play, or griefing, can be defined as performing actions that ruin the game for other players; these behaviors include: extorting, stalking, insulting, and killing other players . Researchers have proposed a four-category taxonomy of griefing motivation, and anonymity influences them all. Specifically, increased motivation for griefing, in all four categories, coincides with greater preferences for anonymity . Deindividuation and anti-social behavior are especially big problems in Massively Multiplayer Online (MMO) games and Multiplayer Online Battle Arena (MOBA) games.
Deindividuation, however, doesn’t just turn you into a jerk. According to the social identity model of deindividuation effects (SIDE), it just makes other cues more prominent . One focuses less on internal rules and more on things group norms and identity cues. So, a deindividualized person in a crowd will riot only when they think everyone else is rioting. A parade attendee in a wild costume, covered with beads and glitter, will be more likely to act wild when deindividualized because their identity cues signify that they go wild when they can. However, in one study, people dressed like nurses, and hence associated with positive identity cues, were less likely to shock participants, than their counterparts who wore a more malicious costume.
Image courtesy of Derren Brown: The Experiments
Unfortunately, the group norms associated with gamers aren’t exactly pro-social. Unreasonable anger with new players, rampant misogyny, and even death threats are all accepted as part of gamer culture . So, a deindividualized player will be much more likely to fall back on accepted anti-social group norms. The reason people act so poorly in online games is because it’s expected of them. So, the best way to avoid anti-social behaviors would be to stick to communities that have strong, pro-social group norms. Also, if possible, try to call out poor behavior. Many university students in Singapore, when interviewed, didn’t even recognize their behavior as griefing, despite having previously categorized that same behavior as grief play . Calling someone out also reduces anonymity, thus making it harder to stay in a state of deindividuation. So, next time you feel the urge to call someone names over the internet, remember that you are at risk of deindividuation. If you can’t say anything nice, log off.
Messinger, P.R., Ge, X., Stroulia, E., Lyons, K., Smirnov, K., Bone, M. (2008) On the Relationship between My Avatar and Myself. Journal of Virtual Worlds Research 1(2), 1–17
Yee, N., & Bailenson, J. (2007). The Proteus Effect: The Effect of Transformed Self-Representation on Behavior. Human Communication Research, 33(3), 271–290.
Holkins, J. & Krahulik, M. (2004) Green Blackboards (And Other Anomalies).
Chen, V. H.-H., Duh, H. B.-L., & Ng, C. W. (2009). Players who play to make others cry: the influence of anonymity and immersion. Proceedings of the International Conference on Advances in Computer Enterntainment Technology, ACE ’09 (pp. 341–344). New York, NY, USA: ACM.
O’Leary, A. (2012, August 1). In Virtual Play, Sex Harassment Is All Too Real. The New York Times, http://www.nytimes.com/2012/08/02/us/sexual-harassment-in-online-gaming-stirs-anger.html