Dismayed by the extraordinary vitriol and vituperation expressed in online discussions of politics that we continue to read reminded me of the insights into behavior in Elias Aboujaoude’s fascinating 2011 book Virtually You: The Dangerous Powers of the E-Personality.
Aboujaoude is a Professor and Director of the OCD Clinic at the Stanford University School of Medicine, and specializes in the treatment of compulsive disorders. I was intrigued by what he might make of interaction online in the 2016 presidential election. Here is what he had to tell us.
Hickman: Among the common observations about the 2016 presidential election was that it presented messages from candidates in speeches and in social media that seemed detached from conventional understandings of reality. None of which seemed to bother supporters. Should we view such behavior as reflecting what you termed the ‘e-personality’ in Virtually You?
Aboujaoude: I talk in my book about the profoundly anti-democratic effects of the personality traits, including distractibility, that come out and are nurtured online. There is only so much truth and depth that you can squeeze into, or glean from, a tweet. Yet this became more or less our source of information in Election 2016. The result, as I warned about in my book, is the elevation of demagoguery at the expense of the informed, measured debate that is absolutely necessary to any functional democracy.
Hickman: Is there something special about the experience of being online that tends to unleash the expression of negative impulses, like arrogance, resentment, and posturing ‘tough guy’ masculinity that played out in this election?
Aboujaoude: Impulsivity is a personality trait that is almost universal to the online experience. Whether it is middle-of-the-night tweets, reckless texting of private pictures, or emails denigrating a boss’s family members, there seems to have been many public displays of online impulsivity in election 2016, but the “stars” of this election are hardly unique in this behavior – most people fall somewhere on the spectrum of online impulsivity and disinhibition.
Hickman: So no one is immune from the temptation?
Hickman: Conspiracism was a recurrent theme in the election. Prestigious news organizations like the New York Times were accused of being ‘corrupt’ in the sense of favoring Hillary Clinton; Clinton Foundation was condemned as a vehicle for influence peddling; and climate change was described as being a Chinese conspiracy. Hillary Clinton was accused of having investigators and her own campaign staffers murdered, Clinton aide Huma Abedin was accused of being an Islamist infiltrator, and Hillary Clinton was accused of being part of a pedophile ring operating out of the Comet Ping Pong pizza restaurant in Washington, DC. Is there something about consuming news online that makes people more gullible to political smear tactics, or does it just allow more of them to connect with one another?
Aboujaoude: The online experience unleashes aggressive personality traits that much of civilization, religion and culture have tried to control. The conscious restraints that normally keep people “in check” and contain behavior do not operate nearly to the same degree online, and the consequences of negative actions aren’t nearly as apparent. Therefore, negative instincts surface almost automatically, making other people (minorities or simply anyone who disagrees with us) seem like easy victims and targets.
Hickman: So images of cats and dogs cuddling together isn’t enough to overcome that?
Aboujaoude: There is certainly some positivity to be found online, but that isn’t encouraged to the same degree as negativity. And more people seem to act worse than better online.
Hickman: I’ve been surprised at how vehement believers in that latter ‘Pizzagate’ political smear have been. Any insight in why some are so invested in this conspiracy theory?
Aboujaoude: No matter how egregious the lie, it is easy to find someone (or many, many people) who agree with you, help you nurture it, and participate in spreading it. Offline, you are more likely to be challenged about the lie and perhaps convinced otherwise. One reason we have become so polarized is because the internet pulls us in extreme directions by allowing extreme personality traits to surface. You would think that this medium was invented to bring us together. What we are seeing, instead, is that people rarely leave the internet more moderate or “in the center”. Instead, they leave the internet more polarized. In its most extreme form, it explains how radical organizations form, grow and recruit online. Internet-mediated globalism, to the extent that it means one homogeneous family, is a myth. We are more fragmented than ever, and the Internet is partially to blame.
Hickman: You describe the super-ego as ‘AWOL’ online in Virtually You. Any chance that it will make a reappearance and help to re-civilize exchanges online?
Aboujaoude: It is hard to see how the genie can be put back in the box. The problem is that these negative traits are the default, and there is an inherent pull to regress to them. That is why so much of civilization, culture and religion focused on controlling them. But with the internet, people have found a shortcut right back to the state of nature. Whether this can be reversed requires a conscious, full accounting of the good and bad that these technologies have brought, followed by a research-informed decision on how to enjoy them without losing our essence. Unfortunately, neither the awareness nor the research is there.
Hickman: To end on a lighter note, do you have a favorite television or film portrayal of a psychiatrist?
Aboujaoude: (Laughing) Frasier Crane on Frasier. Not the sort of psychiatry that I do, but a well developed character.
Hickman: As I was reading Virtually You, I kept hearing the author’s voice as the character Sidney Freeman on MASH.
Aboujaoude: Thank you… I’ll take it!
Author’s Note: Please visit Aboujaoude’s website at EliasaBoujaoude.com.