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.

The Psychology Behind Why Online Comments Turn Normal People Into Ghastly Ghouls
[Image: Flickr user M. M. Sand]

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

About the author

Drake Baer was a contributing writer at Fast Company, where he covered work culture. He's the co-author of Everything Connects, a book about how intrapersonal, interpersonal, and organizational psychology shape innovation.