It’s easy to look all around us, especially the online spaces we inhabit, and conclude that decency is dead. But the truth is, it’s possible to disagree with decency.
Human nature is complex. Even if we do have inclinations toward violence, we also have an inclination to empathy, to cooperation, to self-control. Steven Pinker.
Monkey see, Monkey do
The year was 1992. At a research laboratory in the University of Parma in Italy, neuroscientist Giacomo Rizzolatti and his team of researchers were studying the neural patterns of monkeys by implanting a monkey’s brain with electrodes. The researchers noted that whenever the monkey moved or gripped an object, it resulted in neural activity in the brain. No surprise there.
But then, something interesting happened. A researcher walked into the room carrying an ice-cream cone and caught the attention of the monkey. As the researcher moved the ice-cream from his hand to his lips, the electrodes in the watching monkey’s brains whirred even though the monkey was perfectly still.
Eventually, the researchers concluded that monkeys’ brains possess the ability to fire neurons not just when the animal is involved in action, but even when it sees or hears that action in someone else. Rizzolatti and his team referred to this class of neurons as the mirror neurons since these brain cells aim to reflect actions around them.
The story gets even more fascinating. Further studies confirmed humans possess mirror neurons too and that our mirror neurons are a lot more sophisticated in their ability to read and mimic responses to social cues around us. It partly explains the reciprocal fear we feel when we watch a horror movie, the joy when a friend excitedly announces her engagement, and most importantly the empathy we feel in the face of someone else’s pain.
But, as the world we live in continues to become more digitized and less personal, it has definitely interfered with our ability to read and respond to cues in ways we are wired to do. In other words, we seem to lose the ability to read and mirror social emotions, and as a result, we are at risk of losing the “kindness” part of humankind.
The rise of the trolls
In an article published in the Atlantic, happiness expert Arthur Brooks writes about the rise and impact of online trolls on society. The author jokes about how longevity expert Peter Attia is dreaming up of an invention that would shock him with 100 volts of electricity every time he engages with online critics.
Every time I get attacked unfairly and answer an internet troll, it always gets worse and worse because the virtual crowd that shows up is made up of more trolls. But I never seem to learn.
This is not news to anyone who has engaged in online conversations of any kind. Helpful (even if critical) comments are rare. Even if you aren’t one to engage in commentary on social media, being just a bystander and reading other comments, reviews, and opinions can leave you reeling thanks to the level of toxicity and lack of decency in the system.
The sheer volume of online vitriol begs one question, though: would people espouse the same hostile opinions if they were forced to do it alone, in-person, to someone’s face?
The answer, undoubtedly, is a resounding “No.” This ability to display our unfiltered side online while still conforming to social norms in person is now a well-studied and documented psychological phenomenon with a name—the online disinhibition effect.
Online disinhibition effect
The Online disinhibition effect cuts both ways. In its benign form, it leads to people being able to share (sometimes over share) intimate and personal details about themselves with strangers. That can be helpful, especially for those who are extremely shy, introverted, or have other forms of social phobias.
However, the more prevalent version of the online disinhibition effect though is the toxic one that causes people to showcase extreme opinions, insults, and often hostile and inappropriate comments with no regard to the impact such behavior may have on the recipient.
The primary driver of toxic online disinhibition, of course, is the ability to remain anonymous. According to a research study, cyberbullying behavior increases when the aggressor perceives the ability to retain anonymity.
There is one thing we can all agree on: it doesn’t take much at all to remain anonymous online.
When the system makes it so easy for users to adopt new (and fake) personas, avatars, or handles, it simultaneously takes away the pressure to conform to socially accepted behavioral norms. This allows people to spew insults and make derogatory or offensive comments without the threat of consequences.
The cloak of invisibility permits people to feel emboldened to present the darkest versions of themselves online, knowing well there would be no repercussions. If that doesn’t sound bad enough, even more insidious than cyberbullying is the concept of cyber-mobbing.
Cyber-mobbing is when a group of people gang up to pile on hostile behaviors making it even more distressing for the individual(s) at the receiving end of all the hate, because it can make them feel like the entire world is against them. Sadly, this phenomenon is all too real and has resulted in tragic incidents, especially among teens and young adults.
The "human" part of the equation
Besides the anonymity, it is often easy to forget that many virtual interactions have human beings (with emotions and feelings) at the receiving end. But without the physical cues, the usual empathy circuits and mirror neurons that trigger in our brain during face-to-face discussions don’t fire as well in online settings, causing us to be empathy-deficient.
So, how do we go back to restoring the kindness in humankind?
There are concrete things we can do to restore decency and dignity in the digital (and physical) spaces we inhabit.
It may be tempting to retort to set the record straight, but engaging with trolls (offline or online) simply adds fuel to the fire. Channel your inner Michelle Obama in such cases and choose to disengage.
When they go low, we go high.
Remove the cloak of invisibility
As discussed, a major reason for reckless behavior is the shield of anonymity online. By choosing to only engage with those who reveal their true identities, we can automatically dial down the conversations and elicit much sober, vitriol-free responses.
Don’t feed the frenzy
According to Steven Pinker, even though warfare between tribes and nations has gone down significantly over the centuries,
The psychological components of war have not gone away—dominance, vengeance, callousness, tribalism, groupthink, self-deception.
Let’s be honest. Even those of us with the best intentions knowingly or unwittingly aid and abet those who aren’t channeling the better angels of their nature. All because we get caught up in groupthink, or like to take ideological sides in a conversation, and our tribalism overpowers our need for decency.
So, the next time you’re tempted to pile on the insults, or upvote name-calling, stop to think about decency and how your action will affect those on the other end.
“If you don’t have something nice to say, say nothing at all” does not mean you don’t speak the truth to power. But name-calling, swearing, and hostile language gets us nowhere.
Tone matters. Words matter. You can have the most sincere message in the world, but if it’s delivered inappropriately, it goes nowhere.
Morals are a private matter. Decency, on the other hand, is of public concern.