The Psychology Behind Why Online Comments Turn Normal People Into Ghastly Ghouls

Discovering why wading into comment sections so often feels like a horror show, and what might be done about it.

It's close to midnight—and something evil's lurking in the dark. Under the screen light, you see a sight that almost stops your heart. You try to type, but terror takes the words before you make them. Your screen starts to freeze, as horror looks you right between the eyes: you're paralyzed. Because these are comments, online comments.

And for some grisly reason, when people become commenters, they often start acting like ghouls.

But why do comments make us act so ghoulish?

As Maria Konnikova writes in the New Yorker, people can act out when they're adding their opinions to online articles.

This has prompted shifts in the people being commented on: While some publishers have embraced their comment sections—the Gawker network has reportedly spent years developing Kinja, its new comment system—others have decided to exile them completely. Popular Science provides the highest profile case study. In a post titled "Why We're Shutting Off Our Comments," the pub declared that "Comments can be bad for science," for "even a fractious minority wields enough power to skew a reader's perception of a story."

The story beneath the skewage, then, is to understand how the "fractious minority" can become so fractious—or more simply, why people often start acting like trolls once they sit behind a keyboard.

One reason is that when you're safely behind a screen: your identity feels less linked to what you're saying. Psychologist John Suler called that disconnect the "disinhibition effect"—it arises from the invisibility, asynchronicity, and minimization of authority we experience when we're online. As Konnikova notes, the idea is that when you reframe your identity (like via hypertext) your behavior gets unconstrained.

But humans (and ghouls and trolls) are social creatures, so our peers' behavior primes our own. A study from the University of Wisconsin found that sentiment cascades through the comment section: if people start nice, they'll keep being nice, but if they get nastier early, things will only get nastier. But as Konnikova observes, this isn't solely a problem for online comments:

The authors found that the nastier the comments, the more polarized readers became about the contents of the article, a phenomenon they dubbed the "nasty effect." But the nasty effect isn’t new, or unique to the Internet. Psychologists have long worried about the difference between face-to-face communication and more removed ways of talking—the letter, the telegraph, the phone. Without the traditional trappings of personal communication, like non-verbal cues, context, and tone, comments can become overly impersonal and cold.

In other words, the more removed we are from the richness of face-to-face interaction, the more likely we are to offend people—whether we're aware of it or not.

But the Internet's mediation affects our culpability, too. As in, when you're yammering about stuff online, you feel less accountable for your words. Because of this, Konnikova observes, you'll be more likely to fall back on mental shortcuts: stereotypes, generalizations, and the like. So when commenting on something online, you'll be more likely to make a lazy, unthoughtful judgement on a complex issue—which can come off as positively ghoulish.

Hat tip: the New Yorker

[Image: Flickr user M. M. Sand]

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  • WiselyAnonymous

    Here is a checklist, before hitting submit button:
    Is it true
    Is it necessary
    Is it kind

    Some Deliberately turn ghoulish or a troll. So the above checklist could be (ab)used based on the intent. Wisely anonymous, is also a minority...

  • dash

    Surely you jest. I have had plenty of "in person" conversations with openly sarcastic, racist, belittling oafs. Online comments are just another variant of the type of water cooler conversation that takes place every day.

  • WiselyAnonymous

    Water Cooler - Toxin cleaner. Choice between silently cleansing the toxic thoughts or spitting it out in an inappropriate manner (waste talks, loose comments) ... Choices!

    You got a point there! Maybe we have to live with it...

  • Thanks for the Thriller

    While very well written, I question that people don't already know of this phenomenon. I literally checked the date on this twice to make sure I hadn't wandered onto a seven year old page. There was talk of this sort of situation in MMORPG's I played, what seems like ago. In addition, anybody who has ever been a customer service representative at a call center was already aware of this effect (to a lesser degree). Remove face-to-face interaction, and the likelihood that the person (not the one whose job is to field such calls, hopefully) will be rude, curt, or inappropriate in some manner increases exponentially.

    Take away the perception that you can say whatever you like because the author isn't sitting there waiting for discussion creates false bravado, or the long known Internet Tough Guy.

  • Omid Shirazi

    Good article. Perhaps it is because people tend to self-censor a lot of what they believe in when out in the open of society. Perhaps for the same reason racism has become a private matter than public compared to a 100 years ago. Perhaps this is why the government is now conducting massive surveillance of private digital lives to have a good assessment of how the actual society is thinking... The human society as a whole has learned to fake political correctness publicly as it has evolved through various stages of its existence.

    I personally find the online medium a lot more honest and preferable than feeling-protectionism and face to face manipulation employed by most people when out in the open or in person.

  • IrwinFFletcher

    I was also discussing this recently, specifically relative to how quickly things escalate in a response forum. And, the opinions are often woefully uneducated about the subject at hand. Is this an issue with a person's starvation to be heard? Are they that angry before the article, or does it bring it out? It's a fascinating thing to watch unfold. I've found that sometimes, if you respond to a particularly harsh comment with sound reason and an acknowledgement of their point, it helps to settle them down. In no uncertain terms, some people act like real animals in comment forums. Reactionary, mean-spirited and often violent.

  • Lisa - Good.Co

    I was just talking this over with a friend the other day. Since I write online content for a living, comments are a big part of the interaction I have with an audience. One common thread I find among the least helpful comments (not counting outright trolls) is a tendency to simply state an opinion that presents no argument, and therefore contributes nothing to the exploration of a topic. A possible solution might be a change of nomenclature. A comment tends to be just that - a stand-alone statement that is a categorical expression of opinion. Renaming the comment section 'discussion', or 'conversation', might influence the way an audience engages with online content.
    Thanks for bringing up such an interesting topic for discussion!

  • WiselyAnonymous

    Thats a good suggestion. Also some disclaimers somewhere in writeup can help :)

  • Jim

    What a load of psyco mumbo jumbo and you dicks are all saps for swallowing it, haha, sorry couldn't help myself, have a nice night.x