Motivation and emotion/Book/2019/Online disinhibition effect

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Online disinhibition effect:
What is the ODE, why does it occur, and what are its implications?

Overview[edit | edit source]

Have you ever shared more about yourself, your desires and your views on you social media than you do in general life? Have you ever negatively commented on others’ social media or been the victim of trolling yourself? You may be experiencing what is known as the Online Disinhibition Effect.

Figure 1. Stop Cyber-bullying!

The digital world has evolved faster than humans anticipated. It is the main communication of the 21st century and therefore the primary means of socialisation. This has created a significant lag between the cyber world’s progression and the legislation and regulation surrounding its safe and prosocial use. This has generated a complex issue for policy makers and law enforcement bodies in trying to police those using the internet for nefarious purposes, such as theft/fraud, Cyberbullying and abuse.

Australia’s eSafety Commissioner and the Australian Communications and Media Authority (ACMA) are responsible for encouraging online safety for Australians (eSafety Commissioner, 2019). Cyber bullying is just one facet of toxic online behaviour that the eSafety Commissioner oversees. In the 2018 to 2019 financial year, the eSafety Commissioner (2018-19) received 531 complaints about serious cyber bullying (meeting their threshold) alone, an increase of 30 per cent from the previous financial year. Young Australians were the primary targets of online abuse, as persons between 13 and 17 years of age constituted over 70 per cent of the total complaints. Within this pool, females accounted for 64 per cent of the reported victims of cyber bullying, males constituting 34 per cent, with 2 per cent unspecified. Nasty comments/serious name calling, colloquially referred to as ‘trolling’ was the predominate[spelling?] form of online abuse, accounting for over 80 per cent of the total complaints.

Not only does cyberbullying affect individuals and their immediate social groups, but there is a greater cost to the Australian population. An online poll conducted by research group The Australian Institute in April 2018 of a nationally representative sample of 1,557 Australians, indicated at least 39 per cent had experienced at least one form of online harassment (Swann, 2019). When applied across the population, it equated to at least 8.8 million Australians experiencing some type of cyberbullying. Of those surveyed, a {{what} proportion indicated they had taken leave from employment or sought medical and/or psychological support; and when applied across the Australian population, it amounted to a cost to the Australian taxpayer of $330 million from online harassment and cyberhate, being $62 million in medical costs and $267 million in lost income. For all the complaints that are reported, there are also many instances that are not.

So what can we do about toxic and benign online disinhibition? Until regulation can be better implemented and policed, education is key – not only for perpetrators, but also for victims. Understanding the motivations behind online disinhibition can help us better prepare ourselves for the fast evolving world of digitisation and allow us to anticipate and work toward prosocial, rather than harmful, online behaviour. Therefore, the purpose of this chapter is to discuss motivational theories that explain why people are less inhibited online. Understanding this may assist policy makers and victims of toxic disinhibited online behaviour to address the causes and reduce instances of further harm.

Focus Questions

1. What is the online disinhibition effect?

2. What influences online disinhibition?

3. What are the implications of online disinhibition?

What is the Online Disinhibition effect?[edit | edit source]

Figure 2. Image of a mask providing anonymity to the user, as the internet does for its users

Disinhibition is when a human shows a lack of restraint in their behaviour, which affects their cognitive, motor and emotional aspects, and displays actions such as impulsivity, aggression disregard of norms and risk taking (Boller and Grafman, 2000). Online disinhibition refers to this type of behaviour in an online context, free of the social norms, cultural and personal values and without restraint (Suler, 2004). Numerous psychological theories, encompassing conditioning, feedback and needs, explain how humans process and regulate their own behaviour, based on their own experiences and interaction with others. Cultural norms and personal values also drive human behaviour by providing context and application of behaviours. The online disinhibition effect is exhibited when humans display behaviour that would ordinarily be regulated by face to face interactions (Suler, 2004).

The online disinhibition effect manifests in two different ways – benign disinhibition and toxic disinhibition. Benign disinhibition is displayed as free expression of personal ideas, emotions and desires as well as acts of kindness toward others; while toxic disinhibition may manifest as anger, hatred, threats and deception (Suler, 2004). While benign disinhibition appears, on face value, to be prosocial; both can pose harm to the community and individuals as they can create feelings of isolation; normalise and reinforce anti-social behaviours; and exacerbate mental health issues (Suler, 2004).

Suler (2004) describes six main elements that influence the online disinhibition effect. The elements work in unison to generate that conditions allowing for humans to experience the online disinhibition effect, regardless of whether it manifests as benign or toxic.

Figure 3. The internet creates the perception that you are hidden from societal cues on behaviour

Dissociative anonymity (you don’t know me)[edit | edit source]

While there are a range of ways cyber savvy individuals can trace and identify internet users, the internet allows its user to remain largely anonymous. In doing so, humans can compartmentalise their behaviour as their ‘online’ self, opposed to their ‘real life’ self and justify that behaviour through a process of disassociation averting responsibility for their disclosures and actions (Suler, 2004).

Invisibility (you can't see me)[edit | edit source]

Overlapping with anonymity, invisibility allows humans to say and do what they want, without the social cues from others that would ordinarily inhibit expressive or anti social behaviours. Invisibility allows people to express themselves, in prosocial or aggressive ways, without the immediate visual feedback that enforces social normal and cultural values (Suler, 2004).

Asynchronicity (catch you later)[edit | edit source]

Real time verbal and non verbal feedback encourage inhibition in human exchanges. Asynchronicity in online interactions means that humans do not communicate in real time and do not have to deal with the immediate reaction, delaying the positive or negative feedback until the person feels they are able to hear and manage the response (Suler, 2004).

Solipsistic introjection[edit | edit source]

Despite not personally knowing other internet users, humans project their own perception of the other persons[grammar?] personality, moral and cultural traits based on their own processed vision of the other person. It is a merging of our own fantasies, where we feel to act and speak as we like, with interactions with other online persons. This is more commonly explained as each human envisioning assigning the appearance, voice and values of a book character, own version of reality to that character, regardless of how the author has written their character. In doing so, humans disassociate the other internet user as an actual person (Suler, 2004).

Dissociative imagination (it’s just a game – I don’t know you)[edit | edit source]

Acting in unison with solipsistic introjection, dissociative imagination occurs when humans see cyberspace as a separate universe, with different rules and norms, which allows them to relinquish responsibility for their behaviour as it not perceived as ‘real life’ (Suler, 2004).

Minimisation of authority (you’re not so great yourself)[edit | edit source]

Humans see the online world as a platform where everyone are equals and authority is minimised. In face to face interactions, humans are less likely to behave in particular ways due to the negative feedback that would invite, or the fear of disapproval or punishment (Suler, 2004).

Personality Variables[edit | edit source]

Suler (2004) also examined the extent to which personality variables affected online disinhibition and found that differences in face to face versus online behaviour were not indicative of secret traits, but rather displays of behaviours in different situational contexts, with the online environment facilitating diverse expressions of self (Suler, 2004).

Key Motivational Theories[edit | edit source]

Motivational theories can be used to explain why humans exhibit online benign and toxic disinhibition. Four of these theories will be examined in this chapter – social cognitive theory, self actualisation, self concept and cognitive dissonance.

Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs[edit | edit source]

Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs (1943, 1954) explains human motivation as a requirement to meet certain needs on a five tier gauge. The first four tiers, being deficiency needs, increase motivation the longer the deprivation of those needs occurs. In these tiers, humans seek security and freedom from fear as well as interpersonal relationships, acceptance, affiliation to social groups, self esteem and respect from others (McLeod, 2018). The fifth tier, self actualisation, is a growth needs, which explains from a human desire to grow as a person in order to attain a sense of fulfilment (McLeod, 2018).

Figure 4. Maslow's Hierarchy of Needs

Deficiency needs and growth needs can explain benign online disinhibition. Humans seek a sense of acceptance by others and search for and select their personal relationships accordingly. Humans gravitate toward others that share similar experiences, interest and desires. In face to face interactions, humans may face hurdles in locating social groups due to their personality traits, fears and geographic location. However, these obstacles may be easily overcome in the cyber world due to the prevalence of social media and networking platforms (Fenichel, 2011). Individuals may perceive themselves to be anonymous and invisible and feel less inhibited to share more about themselves than they would in ‘real life’ in order to locate and join social groups. The online disinhibition elements of asynchronicity and authority minimisation also enables humans to selectively choose the type of feedback they receive in order to fulfil their self concept (Toma, Hancock and Ellison, 2008).

Benign disinhibition can manifest as a result of human’s seeking self-actualisation. According to Maslow (1943, 1954, 1962), self actualisation occurs when a human achieves personal growth and discovery and could be measured through peak experiences, where there are feelings of euphoria, joy and wonder. In an attempt to understand themselves, resolve interpersonal issues and/or explore new emotions and identities, humans seek feedback from both themselves and from peers (Fenichel, 2011). Expressions of desires, fears and concept of self in the cyber world by individuals could be attempts to garner advice, direction and validation from others. Furthermore, participation in online social groups can foster empowerment, which is needed to cope with distress, and generate other emotions associated with self improvement, furthering human’s[grammar?] strive[grammar?] for self actualisation (Barak, Boniel Nissam and Suler, 2008).

A human’s need for reputation and respect are influenced by the minimisation of authority, asynchroncity and dissociative imagination that occurs during online disinhibition. Individuals see themselves on equal platforms with their peers and authority figures when online, and disconnect with the consequences and effects of their behaviours (Suler, 2004). These elements are primary drivers of toxic online disinhibition as they enable individuals to exert their authority over other cyber users through aggressive, negative and non compromising behaviours. This could be displayed as leaving negative comments about a person’s choice, ideas and values on online media platforms, then either further attacking, dismissing or ignoring the other individual’s reaction/defence.

Figure 5. Humans learn social cues from behavioural feedback from others

Social Cognitive Theory and Feedback[edit | edit source]

Bandura's (1961) Social Cognitive Theory studied that humans can learn behaviour through observation of others (social learning theory). He conducted a study to determine the extent to which humans learn behaviour through the observation of others by exposing children to video content of their peers attacking a doll. He then placed the children in a room with a doll of a similar appearance to determine whether the children would exhibit the same behaviours as the ones in the video. Bandura found that children that were exposed to the video were more likely to display aggressive behaviours towards the doll than those that were not exposed to the video, indicating humans can learn through the observation of others. Bandura (1991) expanded on his research by proposing that human behaviour is motivated and regulated by social factors such as observed reward and/or punishment (operant conditioning) for behaviour. From an early age, humans observe other’s behaviour and reactions to those behaviours both positive and negative. They also learn social cues and non verbal feedback that determines whether the response to the behaviour is positive or negative, such as a smile and praise, disinterest, or frown and punishment.

In the cyber world, there is a lack of immediate social feedback and non verbal cues, which encourages online disinhibition. Social cues and feedback during face to face interactions shape the way humans behave and adjust their behaviour according to their environment (Cheng, Danescu Niculescu and Leskovec, 2014). These instant reactions to human behaviour (asynchronicity) are absent online, which enables humans to dissociate from their behaviour and may motivate toxic online disinhibition.

Cognitive Dissonance Theory[edit | edit source]

In 1957, Festinger (1962) explored the concept of cognitive dissonance, if a human has two conflicting cognitions it causes psychological discomfort and as a result, they will attempt to reduce their discomfort by changing their cognitions. For example, after choosing between two objects, a human may justify their choice by attributing value to the chosen object that it did not have before the choice was made. This concept is important to the cognition of those that display toxic disinhibition online. For example, when exhibiting behaviour not consistent with their self concept, such as cyber bullying, humans may seek to change their cognitions about their behaviour by blaming the victim and relinquishing their responsibility through solipsistic introjection and imaginative dissociation. Assigning their own perceived negative traits to the target of their toxic online behaviour and perceiving the online world as a separate place free of traditional social norms, can motivated toxic online disinhibition.

Implications of online disinhibition?[edit | edit source]

There are both positive and negative implications of online disinhibition.

Positive implications[edit | edit source]

Positive implications are reflected in benign online disinhibition.

  • Without immediate reactions to behaviour, humans can express themselves freely without fear of seeing disapproval, rejection or disinterest by their communication recipient.
  • Furthermore, perceived anonymity and invisibility and allow individuals to overcome social anxiety to communicate with others and forge social connections (Gagnon, 2013).
  • There are complications of this type of social connection, however, with Barak, Bonial Nissim and Suler (2008) highlighting the potential issues with online support groups developing dependence, distance from face to face interactions and exposure to toxic disinhibition.

Negative implications[edit | edit source]

The six factors Suler (2004) outlined as underpinning the online disinhibition effect contribute to the negative implications of online disinhibition as they can encourage the following actions.

  • Desensitisation to social norms, cultural values and laws in individuals as they create an ‘alternate reality’ of what is acceptable behaviour, based on limited ability to administer punishments for anti social behaviour.
  • Promote unhealthy behaviours to fulfil psychological needs, such as esteem and self actualisation needs, by encouraging individuals to share personal information that could be used by others for nefarious purposes, or seek authority over others through aggression.
  • Lead to extreme reactions to toxic online behaviour of targets of the behaviour such as depression, anxiety and/or suicide. Online bullying is especially insidious because as opposed to bullying in schools, cyber bullying can reach its victims in their personal space (home) disrupting their sense of security. Often, targets cannot escape being targeted unless they remove their online presence, which impacts their ability to form social connections.

Conclusion[edit | edit source]

The online disinhibition effect is a complex matter. There are three main motivational theories that underpin the appeal for an individual to engage in both benign and toxic online behaviour. Cognitive dissonance; esteem and self actualisation and social cognitive theory and feedback assist in clarifying what motivates online disinhibition.

No known research has applied the theories to explain why people engage in benign and toxic online disinhibition. Suler outlined the elements that facilitate an individual’s disinhibition online, but the underlying motivation for a person to seek an online outlet has not been explored. As a result, policy makers have been unable to address the root cause of the harm of toxic online disinhibition.

While social norms, cultural values, personal ethics and laws regulate face to face social interactions, the cyber world has expanded too quickly for society to establish a new set of behavioural standards. Given this, it is important that policies, procedures and education are directed toward individuals responsible for toxic disinhibited online behaviours, with policy makers examining the motivational reasons people engage in this behaviour. Furthermore, that while the cyber world evolves, support services are directed toward victims/targets of toxic online disinhibition[grammar?].

Quiz[edit | edit source]

1 Which of the following is not a causal factor of online disinhibition?

Chronic rage
Dissociative imagination

2 The leading theorist for the online disinhibition effect is ________ .


3 What are the two types of online disinhibition theory?

Toxic and Simple
Positive and Negative
Benign and Toxic
Benign and Negative
Simple and Negative

See also[edit | edit source]

References[edit | edit source]

Bandura, A. (1991). Social cognitive theory of self-regulation. Organizational behavior and human decision processes, 50(2), 248-287.

Barak, A., Boniel-Nissim, M., & Suler, J. (2008). Fostering empowerment in online support groups. Computers in human behavior, 24(5), 1867-1883.

Cheng, J., Danescu-Niculescu-Mizil, C., & Leskovec, J. (2014, May). How community feedback shapes user behavior. In Eighth International AAAI Conference on Weblogs and Social Media. Retrieved on October 4, 2019, from

Cherry, K. (2019). What the Bobo Doll Experiment Reveals About Kids and Aggression. Retrieved October 2, 2019, from

Diener, E. (1979). Deindividuation, self-awareness, and disinhibition. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 37(7), 1160.

Kristalyn Salters-Pedneault, P. (2019). Disinhibition (Impulsivity) in BPD. Retrieved October 4, 2019, from

Fenichel, M. (2011). Online behavior, communication, and experience. In Online counseling (pp. 3 20). Academic Press.

Festinger, L. (1962). Cognitive dissonance. Scientific American, 207(4), 93-106.

Fraser-Thill, R. (2018). Why Victims May Not Report Bullying. Retrieved October 2, 2019, from

Gagnon, T. (2013). The disinhibition of reddit users. Adele Richardson's Spring. Retrieved on October 4, 2019, from

Joinson, A.N. (2007). Disinhibition and the Internet. Psychology and the Internet. Retrieved from

Lapidot-Lefler, N., & Barak, A. (2012). Effects of anonymity, invisibility, and lack of eye-contact on toxic online disinhibition. Computers in human behavior, 28(2), 434-443.

Lapidot-Lefler, N., & Barak, A. (2015). The benign online disinhibition effect: Could situational factors induce self-disclosure and prosocial behaviors?. Cyberpsychology: Journal of Psychosocial Research on Cyberspace, 9(2).

McLeod, S. (2018). Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs. Retrieved on October 6, 2019, from

Office of the eSafety Commissioner. (2016-17). Office of the eSafety Commissioner annual report 2018–19. Retrieved from

Suler, J. (2005). The online disinhibition effect. International Journal of Applied Psychoanalytic Studies, 2(2), 184-188.

Sutton, S. (2002). Health Behavior: Psychosocial Theories. International Encyclopedia of the Social & Behavioral Sciences. 2001, 6499 6506,

Swann, T. (2019). Trolls and polls: the economic costs of online harassment and cyberhate. The Australian Institute. Retrieved on October 2, 2019, from cyberhate.

Toma, C. L., Hancock, J. T., & Ellison, N. B. (2008). Separating fact from fiction: An examination of deceptive self-presentation in online dating profiles. Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin, 34(8), 1023-1036.

Wu, S., Lin, T. C., & Shih, J. F. (2017). Examining the antecedents of online disinhibition. Information Technology & People, 30(1), 189-209.

External links[edit | edit source]