Ever since people have been communicating through computers, they have been nasty to one another via the same. Back in the 1970s, computer scientists chatting in the first electronic discussion boards noticed that when they talked to one another virtually there was “an escalation of critical comments, and an increase in the frequency with which people would respond with short negative messages,” says Lee Sproull, Ph.D., professor emerita at the New York University Stern School of Business and an expert in electronic communication and online communities. The scientists called these exchanges the “flame wars,” making them the first documented instance of jerky behavior online, but hardly the last.
Flash forward some four decades and our behavior hasn’t improved. Sherry Turkle, Ph.D., a psychologist and professor at MIT and the author of Alone Together ($29, amazon.com), has found, based on hundreds of interviews with people over 15 years, that “we allow ourselves behaviors online we never would in person” and that these behaviors have consequences beyond the online realm. “We do things online that hurt and damage real relationships: We’re curt with people we work with; we’re aggressive with people in our families; we bully people we go to school with.”
Is it possible we’ve all just devolved into self-centered misanthropes who can’t even be bothered to rustle up a little respect for one another? Or is there something about turning on a computer, running our hands across a keyboard, and hitting “post” or “send” that changes how civilized we are when communicating with others? Experts say it’s the latter. What’s more, they say our behavior is understandable, and that we can change it.
And it’s literally in our best interests to do so, because here’s the kicker: Being negative actually hurts the perpetrator more than it hurts whoever is on the receiving end. Let negative feelings run rampant, and you risk damaging not only real-world friendships or your social standing in online communities, but also your physical health long term. On the flip side, psychologists say that learning how to dial up the good vibes and play nice online may help you feel happier, improve your health, and make you feel more connected to others. And isn’t that what this whole Internet revolution was supposed to be about?
Blame Our Genetics
Tempting as it is to put all this boorish behavior down to the dawn of computers, we actually have to flip further back in the history books: It turns out that our ancestors gifted us with a bias toward negativity. Human beings evolved to focus on negative emotions, because they were necessary for survival.
“The brain is the product of 600 million years of evolution of the nervous system,” says Rick Hanson, Ph.D., a neuropsychologist and the author of Buddha’s Brain ($18, amazon.com). “Down that long road our ancestors had to get carrots like food or sex and avoid sticks, such as predators. If they missed a carrot, they could get one another time. But if they failed to avoid a stick, whack, no more carrots forever.” So the brain evolved to continually scan the horizon for threats and focus on them with tunnel-vision, giving us “hair-trigger fight-or-flight reactions,” says Hanson, which was very useful when we had to save ourselves from lions in the wild. Unfortunately, our brain uses these same systems when dealing with situations that are much less dangerous—a frustrating e-mail from your mom, say.
Plus, our brains developed a memory system that stores negative experiences for the long haul, so we’ll immediately recognize a threat on the next encounter. The result? Though studies show that most people experience far more positive experiences than negative ones over the course of a day, a week, a month, a year, or even a lifetime, it’s the negative ones we hold on to. “Our brains are like Velcro for the negative but Teflon for the positive,” says Hanson.
Think about it. Did you have three nice moments with your husband or wife during the evening, but then stew over some small infraction? Or maybe you had five good experiences yesterday, four neutral ones, and one negative: Which one did you think about when you were falling asleep last night? That approach “worked great for survival in the wild,” says Hanson, “but today it functions as a kind of design flaw in the brain for quality of life and long-term health.”
Blame Our Socialization Skills, Too
Given our genes, we’re already working at a disadvantage when it comes to positivity, which is then compounded by this simple fact: We weren’t taught how to communicate through a computer.
“Face to face is how we learn to communicate as babies,” says Sproull. “So that’s the standard against which all other behavior is judged.” When we speak to one another in person, we are guided by three important elements that are missing when we go online:
The context we’re in. Are we at Sunday services or sitting next to someone in a doctor’s office? The setting calls up established social rules for how to treat one another. We know to be polite to the person sitting next to us in a house of worship. In a doctor’s office, it’s understood that people are probably sick or going through a tough time, and being kind or respecting their privacy is expected. Online we operate without any of those expectations about how to interact, and it means we often miss the mark.
Seeing the person with whom we are speaking. Having someone sitting in front of you “calls up all of the history you have with that person or everything you can infer about that person and their prior experiences,” says Sproull. “You can see if they’re clean or dirty, appropriately or inappropriately dressed, if they look happy, attentive, enraged.” And from those observations you begin to follow what Sproull calls “standard interaction scripts” and to treat people with a little greater understanding of who they are and the situation they are in.
Someone’s reaction to us. In person, “we absorb a huge amount by the other person’s body language,” says Tom Sander, executive director of the Saguaro Seminar project on civic engagement at the Harvard Kennedy School. “Online, I can’t see if you’re yawning or nodding your head or checking your morning mail. It makes it hard to have high-quality, meaningful exchanges.” And it’s then impossible for you to tailor what you are saying to the person you are talking to.
So what happens when we try to communicate without those cues? We don’t consider the emotional state or history of the person we’re communicating with. We don’t mitigate our words. We tend to launch into criticism without such qualifiers as “I may not actually have this right, but I think…” If we enter into an online exchange already feeling negative, stressed, or unhappy (and who, when faced with a packed in-box, isn’t?), we are more likely to emphasize those emotions, says Sproull. And lacking the ability to convey our emotions visually, say with a frown, to whoever is on the other end of the conversation (and without having them on hand to try to soothe us), we rely on emphatic words, ALL CAPS, and harsh language. All of which makes us sound like bigger jerks than we ever meant to be.
Why Do We Think It’s Okay to Go to the Dark Side?
Experts say anonymity also loosens our fingers as they move across the keyboard. Having the ability to be anonymous “can be a real attraction if no one knows you have a drinking problem or depression. The Internet can be useful in allowing people to anonymously ‘come out’ about their problems and get support,” says Sander. “But it is also an Achilles heel. If people don’t know who you are, you are much more likely to say things in a nasty or snarky tone.”
What if that attitude lands you in hot water? Well, when the going gets tough online, let’s face it: You can just stop clicking. “In general we invest less in our reputation in online groups because it is easier to exit them and join other groups,” explains Sander. “In real space, if you don’t get along with your neighbor, you’re less likely to say something really nasty, because moving out of town is costly.” Online, you can just close that browser window and move on to something else.
And it’s exactly that impermanence that makes us feel we have the freedom to be rude. “Not having to deal with someone’s immediate reaction can be disinhibiting,” writes John Suler, Ph.D., professor of psychology at Rider University in Lawrenceville, New Jersey, in his paper “The Online Disinhibition Effect.” “In real life, it would be like saying something to someone, magically suspending time before that person can reply, and then returning to the conversation when you’re willing and able to hear the response.” Or never returning to face the consequences of what you have said.
So What’s the Big Deal?
The most obvious collateral damage from online negativity is the harm it can do to real-world relationships: Many of us have had to patch things up after an e-mail communication got out of hand. “We do things online that hurt and damage real relationships in our lives,” says Turkle. But more surprisingly, according to psychologists, even what may seem like harmlessly letting off steam in a chat room with strangers can hurt us physically and emotionally.
“There’s a saying, ‘Being angry is like drinking poison and expecting it to kill the other person,’ ” says Kristin Neff, Ph.D., author of Self Compassion ($25, amazon.com) and an associate professor of human development and culture at the University of Texas at Austin. Instead, argues Neff, the main person you harm when you are nasty online is you. When you’re critical of others, you’re often trying to boost your own self-esteem. But if you have to put down others to feel good about yourself, you’re shooting yourself in the foot. “The irony is that one of the reasons we want high self-esteem is to improve our place in a group. Feeling connected is what actually makes us happier than just feeling [that we are] better than others,” says Neff.
What’s more, it’s not just happiness we can reap by tapping into positivity but improved health. “There’s a lot of evidence to support the fact that positive emotions work to fundamentally change the way our bodies and brains work,” says Barbara L. Fredrickson, Ph.D., author of Positivity ($14, bn.com) and professor of psychology at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. “We literally see more of the world around us when we are in a positive state, but a negative emotion actually narrows you down.” Which means we lose our ability to be open to diverse ideas, to understand context, and to understand other people. “What we’ve learned is that if people increase their daily diet of positive emotions, it makes them more resilient, more socially integrated, and physically healthier,” says Fredrickson.
In fact, research has shown “that people who experience and express more positive emotions in early adulthood can live up to 10 years longer than people who express the least. That’s a bigger increase [in longevity] than if you were smoking several packs of cigarettes a year and then quit,” marvels Fredrickson. So how do we tap into a little of that longevity mojo?
Turn That Frown Upside Down
One thing that will help you project positivity online is to practice cultivating it in the real world. To start with, focus on the positive events in your life. Relish the good things (I got a load of laundry done; I put the kids to bed; coffee tastes great; I love chocolate), and “over time, you develop more activation in the left side of the prefrontal cortex of your brain, which is the part of your brain that can put the brakes on negative emotion,” says Hanson.
You can then teach your brain to store those good memories (remember, it’s better at holding on to negative events) by savoring the experience. To transfer an experience from short-term memory to long-term, pause for at least 10 seconds to let it sink in. “If you don’t, the next positive experience dislodges the last one,” says Hanson. “Within a couple of weeks you ought to notice a difference,” he adds. “You are weaving positive experiences into the fabric of the brain.”
Another way to help positivity take center stage is to reframe your outlook. “It’s easy to ask yourself ‘What’s wrong with my current circumstance?’ and lead yourself in a downward spiral,” says Fredrickson. “But if you turn the question around and ask ‘What’s right in the current moment?’ that question will usually lead you to something good.” Try ending the day by writing down the things you are grateful for in a journal to help you reiterate the good parts of your life.
Lastly, and we all know this, but doing what we can to dial back stress will go a long way toward helping us be more positive. “When you’re racing off to work, multitasking, juggling caring for kids, racing to get home, all of that puts us in a chronic state of baseline nervous system activation, which primes us to go negative,” says Hanson. So we have to help our bodies and our brains calm down. One of Hanson’s suggested quick fixes is to control your breathing: For a few breaths, make your exhalations about twice as long as your inhalations, activating the parasympathetic nervous system to calm down the flight-or-fight response.
Now Take These 6 Steps to More Positivity Online
There are six very easy steps the pros promise will help your electronic communications become more human and less hurtful.
1. Wait. It’s a simple strategy, but it works. Take a moment before you hit “send” or “post,” whether you’re making an anonymous comment on a blog or responding to an e-mail. For one thing, you’ll have a chance to practice your positive-emotion-making skills (maybe take a sip of the warm tea you just poured and appreciate it?). For another, you’ll have the time to compose something more thoughtful and to think through the possible implications of what you’re writing.
2. Read out loud. “It sounds so hokey,” says Sproull, “but when you read something out loud, it reminds you that it is a message from you and not just disembodied text.” Hearing your own words makes it “easier to imagine how your audience will hear them.”
3. Don’t read into nonresponses. If you haven’t gotten a response to an e-mail, don’t assume you know why. “People often make assumptions, ‘Oh, they’re blowing me off,’ ” says Sproull. But in real life there are at least 10 reasons why the person hasn’t answered. “Maybe they didn’t get your message, maybe they haven’t had a chance to read it, maybe they agree with it and don’t see any point in replying, maybe they got it, read it, and are still deciding how to respond.” Since those options (and more) are possible, you’re just harming yourself by making up a (likely negative) story about what the other person is thinking.
4. Don’t mistake Facebook for face time. Interacting on social network sites such as Facebook can fool you into believing that you are fully connected to the people with whom you are communicating. But even though these people may be your “friends,” remember that you are not getting the full picture of where they are emotionally and what’s going on in their life.
5. Blame the medium. Let’s say you do blow it and post a snarky comment or send a cranky e-mail. Remember, none of us have been trained to communicate with one another online, so we’re learning this new mode of communication as we go. If you blow it one time, be compassionate with yourself and try to do better next time.
6. Be kind to others and you’ll be kind to yourself. “The Buddha is known to have said that getting angry at other people is like throwing hot coals with bare hands: Both of you get burned,” warns Hanson. In fact, a recent study at the University of California at Berkeley found that when people wrote positive, supportive e-mails to people they didn’t know, they ended up being kinder to themselves afterward. And that’s a communication in which everyone ends up happier.
Finally, What If You’re on the Receiving End of Online Nastiness?
Okay, let’s say you’re focusing on the positive every day, you’re reading over your e-mails before you send them, you’re thinking about how someone reading your post will interpret it. You’re stepping away from negativity, and it feels good. And then, bam, here comes a snarky e-mail or comment like a big slap in your positive face. What do you do?
Apply a damp-down filter. You can reduce the highs and lows you interpret in someone else’s e-mail or online comment if you “don’t assume that an exaggerated tone is an accurate reflection of that person’s actual mental state,” says Sproull. Remember, emotions come across much more stridently onscreen than they would if we were talking over dinner. So don’t mistake that string of exclamation marks or capital letters for true emotion.
Dispute negative assumptions. When someone responds negatively to a comment you’ve made online ask yourself “What’s the evidence that this person wants to hurt me?” Chances are you will have little more than a few snarky words on a screen, and that’s not enough to prove this person actually means you any harm. “A lot of negative emotions come from negative assumptions we make,” says Fredrickson. “If you tackle those assumptions and really look at the actual data, there’s usually enough information to take the wind out of your negativity sails.” Then take a break before you respond. “It’s too much to ask to be able to say in the moment ‘What’s positive about this nasty comment this person made about me?’ ” says Neff. Instead, take a few moments to focus on the positive (maybe take a walk). Notice anything that is beautiful or makes you happy. “It’s a form of walking meditation,” says Neff. “After 10 or 15 minutes, you can reset your mind state to being more receptive to the positive.” And then that comment will have a lot less power over you.
Be compassionate to yourself. It’s hard to hear something critical about yourself, but recognize that it’s a normal part of the human experience. “You can’t get the validation you need from other people, all of the time. You have to give it to yourself,” says Neff. “When someone makes a negative comment about you, self-compassion allows you to soothe and comfort yourself.”
Give yourself a hand—literally. When you’re feeling angry or anxious (after reading a brusque e-mail from your boss, for instance), “put your hand over your heart or give yourself a little squeeze,” advises Neff. Research suggests that soothing yourself through kind words or gentle touches might lower levels of the stress hormone cortisol and boost the hormone oxytocin, which makes you feel relaxed and calm, says Neff. And you’re less likely to lash out in response.
Check in. Hanson recommends making sure you understand where the other person is coming from. Try starting your comments or e-mails with sentences such as “Sounds like you’re feeling ___ , is that right?” Or “I’m not sure, but I get the sense that ___.” Or “It seems like what bothered you was ___.” Learning what the other person is actually thinking or feeling will help avoid a lot of misguided, angry communication.
Walk a virtual mile in their shoes. “One thing I do personally, which really slows me down,” says Hanson, “is to try and feel how the other person is suffering. I do it out of self-interest, because when I experience their suffering, it takes away the sting of what they did to me.” So if you’re in a heated debate online, remember that everyone in that “conversation” is bringing his or her own insecurities and anxieties to the conversation. Generally, the emotions you feel they are directing at you are actually much more about what’s going on inside them.