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The Online Disinhibition Effect (ODE) is one of the few psychological phenomena that comes up only in computer-mediated interactions. It arises in conversations on Facebook, when surfing the Web alone, when texting with others, and of course it comes up in telemental health relationships.
The concept was named by cyberpsychology researcher, John Suler, Ph.D. He proposes a model that describes how people using the Internet to access information and interact with others experience a lessening of the inhibitions that we are prone to experience “in real life.” Those experiencing the Online Disinhibition Effect may “…loosen up, feel more uninhibited, express themselves more openly.” (Suler, 2004) This disinhibition can be “benign” and it can be “toxic.” (Suler, 2004)
Similarly, it can benefit therapy and it can detract from therapy. Understanding and learning to work with the ODE is essential to effective telemental health work.
What, precisely, is the Online Disinhibition Effect?
The ODE is just what it says on the tin. It’s what happens when socially-minded inhibitions get lessened by the physical and psychological distance afforded by interacting with others through and/or exploring alone in “cyberspace.” It is often easiest to conceptualize the ODE in terms of the six factors of disinhibition that Suler proposes:
- You Don’t Know Me (dissociative anonymity): The individual feels themselves to be anonymous and unrecognizable, which results in behaviors that the individual may not engage in when they have a feeling that their behaviors will be associated with their identity or reputation. Note that this can, and often will, arise even if the individual has an intellectual understanding of just how traceable their identity is online.
- You Can’t See Me (invisibility): The individual feels that they cannot be observed or can only be observed to a limited extent. This factor is quite limited in therapy by videoconferencing, but certainly arises in text-only interactions. If you’ve ever written important professional emails while sitting in your pajamas and drinking milk out of the carton, then you’re at least familiar with this one.
- See You Later (asynchronicity): When an individual can write a message and then hit “send” or “post” with the expectation the response will be delayed for “later,” they may be more likely to let loose in that message. Put simply, the individual can “send and forget” (for now, that is.) This one applies primarily to textual interactions such as email, since those are asynchronous. An important aspect of videoconferencing and phone is that they are synchronous, and thus this factor is significantly reduced when working via those media.
- It’s All in My Head (solipsistic introjection): The separations and artificial interaction elements created by computer interfaces can can generate a certain kind of derealization for the person engaging with them. Even though the person is engaging with real people and doing things with real consequences, computerized contextual cues and lack of in-person responses can create a feeling that it is all make-believe. The individual may then have a reduced perception of the potential consequences of their actions. On the other hand, they may also feel less inhibited by the perceived difficulties involved in performing some desired action, such as expressing feelings or reaching out to someone they wish to make contact with.
- It’s Just a Game (dissociative imagination): Following up on solipsistic introjection, this factor focuses on the possibility for the individual to feel like their interactions (with real people) or explorations (of real things) are simply a game. The consequences are reduced, the safety of exploration is increased, and creative exploration may feel more welcome and more impactful. There is an immense amount of potential here for therapy in a wide variety of modalities, as well as a lot of room for therapy-interfering behaviors from both clients and clinicians.
- We’re Equals (minimizing authority): Online interactions tend to carry with them fewer contextual cues (or different contextual cues) than in-person ones. As such, there is less there to tell us just how “important” a person is. Combine this with the other factors, and it is easy for the importance of hierarchy to be minimized in cyber-contexts. I have a personal pet theory that this factor is one of several reasons why generations of people who regularly interacted via textual media during important developmental years now put less weight on social hierarchies than their elders do.
How is ODE a potential problem?
Many long-time “netizens,” including your humble author, have classically thought of Online Disinhibition Effect as the psychology behind “trolling.” Trolling is, in effect, a form of cyberbullying. People who might otherwise be reasonable folks may go online to post hurtful things in online forums and comment threads. Generally, the dissociation from reality described in the six factors gives a kind of “safe space” to the person’s more malicious nature — much to the dismay of everyone else.
In therapy, ODE can enable clients to take the process less seriously or to disconnect from the process when the going gets tough. After all, why face that highly painful process that my therapist is guiding me through when it’s all just a game that I can turn off at any time?
How is ODE a potential boon?
Other less malicious — and sometimes beneficial — patterns we see from ODE include people who affect online personas so that they can play out a different identity, or who actively engage in online discussions despite a deep social anxiety that blocks them from doing so in real life.
In therapy, properly-harnessed ODE can create safer spaces for those with excessive inhibitions, allow for imaginative interventions that are not possible in real life, facilitate transferences towards the therapist that would normally be denied by the contextual cues provided by in-person interactions, and more.
Here is one personal story of beneficial disinhibition effects in a telemental health relationship (with permission from the client): I worked with a client for the better part of a year, 100% via videoconferencing, on issues relating to past trauma. Normally this client would not have felt comfortable with a male therapist, but the videoconferencing-based interaction allowed her to perceive me the way she needed to in order to make it psychologically safe. In this case, she perceived me as having a very small physical stature. The reality is that I am over 6 feet tall and quite broad.
The ODE, facilitated in part by the limited visual cues provided by online video, allowed her to make me what she needed in ways that would not have worked in person. In this particular case, the lowering of barriers to working with a male therapist allowed her to make some important breakthroughs.
We discuss recognizing and using Online Disinhibition Effect in our telemental health certificate program.
The Online Disinhibition Effect is a bit like a garden hose turned up to maximum pressure. Left to its own devices, it can flop all over the place. Maybe it will water your flowers or maybe it will flop all over them while watering the sidewalk. If you learn to handle it and guide it towards a productive purpose, however, it’s a powerful force for good.