Kim Carney / msnbc.com
By
msnbc.com contributor
updated 9/24/2008 8:50:01 AM ET 2008-09-24T12:50:01

One minute, they’re nice, normal people. The next, they’re frothing at the mouse.

“It’s mind-boggling the things people will say and even the things I will say,” says Catherine McIntyre, a 38-year-old medical billing specialist from Houston. “People who’d never say something horrible in real life will do it again and again and again online. It’s like the behavior of crowds, or those mass beatings where no one gets blamed because everyone’s at fault.”

Sheri Pineda, a 59-year-old customer service representative at the Daily Breeze in Torrance, Calif., encounters the same bad behavior in the after-hours messages left by her newspaper’s subscribers.

“It’s appalling the way people talk,” Pineda says. “They’ll rant and rave and cuss at us with extremely foul language. And I think a lot them specifically wait until we close the phones. They’re looking to let it all out and then get on with their day. And then they’re surprised when I get back to them. They’re like, ‘You actually heard that?’ and will be embarrassed.”

Hello. You have reached the split personality zone. Press 1 to melt down. Press 2 to hang up and act like a normal person again.

I, anonymous
Between out-of-control customers, vituperative online posters and road-raging drivers, it’s hard to find an individual who hasn’t succumbed to the siren song of faceless, consequence-free communication. Online boards are clogged with insults hurled by readers hiding behind deceptively mild screen names — (“I hope you rot in hell!” signed Kittyface) — and customer service reps endure blistering tirades from disembodied voices week in and week out.

These days there are a dozen ways to communicate without actually having to look somebody in the eye. As a result, not only have we developed an abrupt, abbreviated way to chat (IMHO), but our technological advances have spawned new psychological terms such as “online disinhibition effect” to explain our tendency to open up — in both good ways and bad — when we’re sitting in front of a screen.

But our split personalities aren’t limited to the Web. They tend to show up whenever no one’s looking.

In a February 2008 study published in the journal Psychological Reports, researchers found that out of four groups of participants, only those in the anonymous group took part in antisocial behavior — in this case defined as violating rules to obtain a reward.

“I definitely believe that anonymity affects the frequency of antisocial behavior among individuals to some extent, even when these individuals have a reasonable sense of morality — so-called ‘ordinary people,’” says study author Tatsuya Nogami of Nagoya University in Japan.

“In my personal opinion, people generally try to comply with social norms in everyday life, even when such compliance with norms and rules conflicts with their personal self-interests. However, if you can get what you want without receiving any punishment or negative evaluations from others, are you still 100 percent sure that you’ll always refrain from engaging in that kind of undesirable behavior?”

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Rage against the machine
Cindy Helgason, a 48-year-old soap maker from Des Moines, Iowa, says she can’t stick a sock in her anonymous persona no matter how hard she tries.

“Normally I’m a goody-two-shoes,” says Helgason. “But whenever I get in the car, I yell and cuss a blue streak. Everybody who drives slower than me is an idiot and everybody who drives faster is a maniac. The worst part is this isn’t a very big place. My kids will say, ‘Gosh mom, that’s Mrs. So-and-So,’ and I’m like, ‘Oops!’ That’s one of the reasons I took the sign for my soap-making business off the back of my car. I don’t want to be associated with the person I am behind the wheel.”

According to psychologist Patricia Wallace, senior director of information technology at the Johns Hopkins University Center for Talented Youth, a car can offer us the same kind of psychological distance — and/or personality-cloaking capacity — as a computer.

“When your windows are rolled up, you feel relatively anonymous,” says Wallace, author of the book “The Psychology of the Internet.” “Not long ago I saw someone I knew going down the street furiously honking at the car in front of them. I turned the corner and waved and suddenly they weren’t anonymous anymore. You could see the incredible shame come over them because they’d demonstrated this behavior that from their perspective was out of character. Anonymity can draw out some very troubling behavior.”

McIntyre, the billing specialist from Houston, says the online news forums she’s participated in over the years have led her down many a dark and dysfunctional corridor.

“People get sucked in,” she says. “You can be whoever you want, you can put out there whatever you want, and there are no consequences. I even got sucked in and was mean to people. I consider myself better than that, but I did it too, and that bothers me. I guess it’s just the dynamic.”

Rider University psychology professor John Suler wrote about this dynamic in his 2004 paper “The Online Disinhibition Effect.” In it, he describes both toxic disinhibition — angry, threatening behavior such as that seen in flame wars or cyberbullying — and benign disinhibition, in which people make overly personal revelations due to the intimate nature of the medium. (Think online daters who “fall in love” without ever meeting.)

A lot of this effect has to do with feedback — or lack thereof, says Wallace.

“The environment affects how you behave,” she says. “Any time you go to places where you’re not known — even if it’s a hotel in another city — you might be more aggressive. So when you construct an environment like the Internet or long-distance call centers with a help desk worker in Bangalore, you’re creating an environment that facilitates uncharacteristic behavior. You’re not getting those nonverbal cues that calibrate your behavior and give you feedback if you’re going off track. Those people who do customer service for Comcast probably need double doses of Zoloft.”

Cherise Oleksak, a 35-year-old cable TV customer service representative from Fife, Wash., says dealing with people’s disinhibited side can definitely be a challenge. Some scream and rage; others get a little more, uh, personal.

“You’ll get people who will turn into perverts,” she says. ”They’ll ask you out or ask you to do phone sex. They’ll be like, ‘Can you read those pay-per-view adult movie titles out loud to me again?’”

Robin Taylor, 42, a customer care representative from Nashville, Tenn., says she’s seen this split, as well.

“We get people who act horribly. Horribly!” says Taylor, who works for a cell-phone company. “They’ll cry, they’ll scream, they’ll shout, they’ll cuss. And I know most of those people would never do that to your face."

“I guess they feel they can say whatever they want because they’re anonymous, but the funny thing is we have all their information: their name, their address, their phone number, even part of their Social Security number. Not that I would ever retaliate, but if we ended up with some psycho (employee), it could happen.”

Going public
Interestingly enough, some folks are starting to retaliate.

Surreptitious tape recordings of outrageously bad customer behavior have started to pop up on YouTube in all their profanity-laced glory.

In 2004, comedienne Margaret Cho posted dozens of hateful e-mail messages she’d received in response to a monologue on her Web site, along with each sender’s full name and e-mail address. Shamed — and deluged with their own hate mail from Cho’s fans — some posters sent in abject letters of apology.

In the online world, abusive users hiding behind anonymous screen names are being outed, sometimes to huge public embarrassment as when Whole Foods chief executive John Mackey was unmasked as the sock puppet responsible for posting numerous attacks against competitors on a Yahoo! financial message board. And media sites from Sacramento to Soho are stepping up their moderation of anonymous comments in an attempt to keep the incivility down to a low roar.

“When we first started with online blogs and that sort of thing, people weren’t aware of how much the environment could affect their behavior, but now people are getting much more savvy about it,” Wallace says. “But the issue that needs to be considered now is there’s no privacy. People need to recognize that they just can’t send out these blogging responses and e-mails and expect their anonymity to be preserved. It probably won’t be. Recording devices are everywhere and Web 2.0, with its user-generated content, greatly amplifies the Net’s power to expose and publicize.    

“It also archives forever.”

Diane Mapes is a freelance writer and regular contributor to msnbc.com.

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