Psychological Pitfalls of Online Communication

By Nancy Seddens

The psychological aspects of interaction via the internet make for interesting study. On the one hand, people will say they enjoy connecting with people they do not know online because it allows them to be themselves. They say they feel uninhibited; researches agree that inhibitions are often reduced with cyber-communication and have coined the term disinhibition effect to explain the phenomenon.

Lack of feedback
One reason people feel more open to expressing themselves online is the anonymity it gives them. Unfortunately, this disinhibition effect is not only part of his or her experience but affects everyone online. To some degree, everyone in email, Tweets, Facebook posts and online chat rooms is playing a part. While in some respects people feel safer and therefore more open, they also are unable to judge the intentions, truthfulness and motives of those with whom they are communicating. Tens of thousands of years of learning the subtlety of non-verbal cues fly out the window and only the written word is left to convey meaning.

Without seeing an expression, hearing a tone of voice or being able to judge body language one can literally only read what is being articulated. This presents complications; human beings often say the opposite of what they are truly feeling. This duplicity is often not intentional. In many instances, people are not totally aware of what their true feelings are and therefore are not always able to express them directly. Instead, humans have learned how to interpret subliminal messages to gain insight into the real feelings of those with whom they interact.

Ships in the night syndrome
In addition to the lack of subliminal signals, there is also the time dilemma. Communication online is seldom done in real time. Therefore, in addition to the physical disconnect there is a temporal one as well. Whatever emotions one might feel when posting online may not be reflected at the time a response is received. This is similar to what letter writing was for former generations except in this age we communicate with a larger number of people. Many of those who read our rants and raves are not even people we know. Without a baseline understanding of a person, communicating with them online can be like becoming acquainted by viewing random snapshots of them.

Boundary breakdown
The boundary between our inner self and our public self is reinforced by physical cues presented by our five senses. A sense of us versus them is obvious in-person and to a lesser degree in telephone conversations. The lack of conscious and subliminal feedback coupled with the disruption of a linear continuum blurs the line between private and public self. This can result in what is called “primary process thinking” a state where the thought process is more subjective and emotion-centered. An opening up to the world at large of what would normally be the inner self while becoming anxious and defensive about the seemingly intrusive outer world is the result.

How we as human beings will learn to socially evolve to use cyber communications effectively is something psychologists are interested in finding out. How our psyches adapt to mass personal communication over distance and time, with a largely unknown audience, is something yet to be revealed.

About the author
Nancy Seddens is a freelance writer in southern Ohio and contributor to While she finds all science interesting, she finds psychology, anthropology and evolutionary science to be the most fascinating.

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