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What has psychology got to do with the Internet?

By Yair Amichai-Hamburger


“What has psychology got to do with the Internet?”

This question was put to me some years ago by an eminent (though clearly not up to date) professor from a well-known university. Hopefully today most of us are pretty clear that the worlds of psychology and the Internet interact constantly.

I believe that the Internet has special characteristics which together create an exceptional environment for the user. To start with, many websites allow you to  maintain your anonymity. You may do this by assuming a pseudonym, using your initials or just “leaving the space blank”. This characteristic frees people from many of the issues that constrict them in their day to day offline lives. In other words the anonymous persona on the Internet has no past history, he or she can choose to be whoever they wish. This, for many people, creates positive feelings of self-confidence. So, for example, as an anonymous  person I may well have the confidence to comment on a play or a film, safe in the knowledge that no one will retort “Don’t listen to him, he never studied this in his life,  he doesn’t know what he’s talking about!” Thus the Internet gives us the power to recreate ourselves in any way we choose.

One of the components of this anonymity, and one which is another factor in the feelings of rising self confidence that many people experience when using the Internet, is the high degree of control assigned to the user as to how much of their physical appearance they expose. Some websites do not ask for any kind of personal identification, but even on those that do, there is a tremendous amount of leeway as to how this is actually done. Thus, while some people may choose to represent themselves by a recent photo, others may, for example, choose a picture of their dog, themselves as baby or a likeness taken some ten years earlier when they were fifteen kilos lighter and had a head full of hair. All these are ways of maintaining anonymity, so no one visiting the site will know if you are white or black, a child or an adult. For people who  have some facial disfigurement or any kind of physical characteristic that they believe  puts them at a social disadvantage, this freedom from their body image given to them by the Internet is often tremendously liberating and may well make them open to opportunities for social interaction that they would otherwise avoid.

On the Internet people feel a high degree of equality. This stems from the anonymity found there. On the net no one knows who I am and that  means that not only am I not judged by my physique or my age, nor am I judged by my wealth and possessions or lack of them. Perhaps surprisingly these feelings of liberty bought about by invisibility have been shown to be important both for the haves and the have-nots. Research has shown that on the net, the wealthy and the physically attractive are likely to be released from familiar feelings that people are only interested in them because of their physical and material attributes and at last feel judged on their own merits, and that  those in the contrary position feel similarly.

In many cases, the control that people feel on the Internet, through their anonymity, has a strong impact on their behavior online. This plays out in several ways: individuals feel that if they start an interaction and wish to leave, they can easily disappear with no further consequences, something that does not happen in a face to face interaction. Moreover the fact that on the Internet people do not have to respond immediately leads them to feel less pressure and more control. The Internet gives us the freedom to decide how and when we communicate our message. For those individuals who spend a lot of time shaping and reshaping their  message until they are satisfied with the result, this provides feelings of safety and security  which provide a very different experience from many face to face encounters.

Another way in which people feel empowered by the Internet is the ease with which they can find similar others. This is significant because when we find people who are similar to us or have similar pursuits we feel that we belong to a group and this belonging is a basic human need. Thus for people who have a minority hobby or interest, it is a tremendous relief to find  others who are excited about it, and on the internet locating such individuals is very straightforward.

Today Internet access is almost ubiquitous since through devices such as smartphones and tablets digital access can accompany us throughout our day (and night-should we choose). This means that for many people their online friends, the group they belong to online and maybe even the grandchildren they are in touch with on another continent may accompany them too. This connection may be particularly important for lonely and isolated people or for those who may be going through a crisis or a particularly difficult time and rely on the support they receive from an online forum.

When we put all of this together, we can see that the Internet really does provide an exceptional setting. One in which we feel in control, protected and equal; one that that allows us to recreate ourselves  and express ourselves freely wherever and whenever we choose, or equally to remain silent or leave a discussion at will. An environment in which we may find like-minded others with ease and thus build friendships and  find support, create groups and community.

Yair Amichai-Hamburger is Director of The Research Center for Internet Psychology, Israel, and author of The Social Net. This article was originally appeared as part of a series on Psychology Today, following a discussion by the author on intergroup conflict.

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Image credit: Hand typing at a computer. By Lincoln Rogers, via iStockphoto.

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