Why We Flame

2 comments February 20th, 2007at 11:37am Posted by Eli

Sounds like the internet is an addiction in more ways than one…

Flaming has a technical name, the “online disinhibition effect,” which psychologists apply to the many ways people behave with less restraint in cyberspace.

In a 2004 article in the journal CyberPsychology & Behavior, John Suler, a psychologist at Rider University in Lawrenceville, N.J., suggested that several psychological factors lead to online disinhibition: the anonymity of a Web pseudonym; invisibility to others; the time lag between sending an e-mail message and getting feedback; the exaggerated sense of self from being alone; and the lack of any online authority figure. Dr. Suler notes that disinhibition can be either benign – when a shy person feels free to open up online – or toxic, as in flaming.

The emerging field of social neuroscience, the study of what goes on in the brains and bodies of two interacting people, offers clues into the neural mechanics behind flaming.

This work points to a design flaw inherent in the interface between the brain’s social circuitry and the online world. In face-to-face interaction, the brain reads a continual cascade of emotional signs and social cues, instantaneously using them to guide our next move so that the encounter goes well. Much of this social guidance occurs in circuitry centered on the orbitofrontal cortex, a center for empathy. This cortex uses that social scan to help make sure that what we do next will keep the interaction on track.


Socially artful responses emerge largely in the neural chatter between the orbitofrontal cortex and emotional centers like the amygdala that generate impulsivity. But the cortex needs social information – a change in tone of voice, say – to know how to select and channel our impulses. And in e-mail there are no channels for voice, facial expression or other cues from the person who will receive what we say.

True, there are those cute, if somewhat lame, emoticons that cleverly arrange punctuation marks to signify an emotion. The e-mail equivalent of a mood ring, they surely lack the neural impact of an actual smile or frown. Without the raised eyebrow that signals irony, say, or the tone of voice that signals delight, the orbitofrontal cortex has little to go on. Lacking real-time cues, we can easily misread the printed words in an e-mail message, taking them the wrong way.


And now, the online equivalent of road rage has joined the list of Internet dangers. Last October, in what The Times of London described as “Britain’s first ‘Web rage’ attack,” a 47-year-old Londoner was convicted of assault on a man with whom he had traded insults in a chat room. He and a friend tracked down the man and attacked him with a pickax handle and a knife.

This isn’t really news, I don’t think. It also doesn’t really address some of the group dynamics that go on – in some online communities (i.e., blog comments), the flamers are spurred on by the presence of an audience. If they’re a hostile outsider, they get off on the negative responses they generate. If they’re part of the community, they feel an impulse to protect it, or maybe just to show off, in the belief (correct or not) that it will enhance their status within the group.

Unfortunately, there don’t seem to be any good solutions – the only ones offered by the article are video chat (good luck with that) and a sort of take-a-deep-breath-and-count-to-ten checklist. Ultimately, it has to boil down to people making a conscious choice about how they want to present themselves. I personally believe that there are many instances where, shall we say, forceful language is warranted, and many others where it just make things worse.

This is probably also a good place to talk about civility, and the Right’s cynical misuse of the term. As I understand it, the right-wing conception of civility appears to be that no matter what kind of ugly, psychopathic thought you express, as long as you refrain from swearing, you are still within the bounds of “civility”. On the other hand, no matter how measured and reasonable your overall argument, if you swear even once, you are automatically disqualified. This is, well, bullshit. (You may now clutch your pearls and stop reading.) Civility is about showing respect for another person and his/her arguments, not about whether you can express your sneering contempt or atavistic hatred without using naughty words. And when neither side believes (or will admit to believing) that the other is arguing in good faith, this kind of civility is all but impossible (I have seen a few liberal bloggers and commenters with a knack for politely taking right-wingers’ arguments at face value and hanging them with them, but the willingness or the ability is rare).

Personally, I believe that most of the Right is constitutionally incapable of arguing honestly, or conceding that we liberals are, but I’m not sure if this is psychopathology or strategic necessity.

Okay, flame away – there’s no-one here to stop you, and everyone will think you’re totally cool.

Entry Filed under: Blogosphere,Democrats,Polls,Republicans,Science


  • 1. Ruth  |  February 20th, 2007 at 1:56 pm

    You’d hate being condemned to live inside one of those minds, too. We need such gems every now and then as a recent CSpan caller who declaimed that everything got blamed on the C-i-C and ‘he isn’t worthy of it’. Applause is in order.

  • 2. Eli  |  February 20th, 2007 at 2:20 pm

    I would hate to be in the position of having to lie about everything all the time, and then act all outraged and lie some more every time I got called on it. I guess I just don’t have the intestinal fortitude to be a Republican.

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