Cyber Social Intelligence

By Jason Marsh | February 20, 2007 | 0 comments

Daniel Goleman has a nice piece in today's Science section of The New York Times, applying his theory of social intelligence to email and other forms of electronic communication. It's bascially about "flaming" (which researchers call "online disinhibition effect," a term I hadn't heard before). Flaming's nothing new, but Goleman offers a neuroscientific explanation for flaming that helps us better understand its causes, and possibly even suggests how we can curtail it.

New research, writes Goleman,

points to a design flaw inherent in the interface between the brain's social circuitry and the online world. In face-to-face interaction, the brain reads a continual cascade of emotional signs and social cues, instantaneously using them to guide our next move so that the encounter goes well. Much of this social guidance occurs in circuitry centered on the orbitofrontal cortex, a center for empathy…. But the cortex needs social information — a change in tone of voice, say — to know how to select and channel our impulses. And in e-mail there are no channels for voice, facial expression or other cues from the person who will receive what we say.

So what can we do to reduce flaming, restore some civility to online conversations, and save a lot of people from unwanted embarassment? Goleman cites one proposal to replace typed messages with video chats. That would probably be effective, but cost will prevent it from catching on anytime soon–not to mention the fact that people prefer the anonymity that the web affords them, it's why many of them spend time online in the first place, for better or worse.

More effective, it seems (as Goleman suggests), would be doing more to teach good old-fashioned social intelligence. If more people can learn to reflect on their emotions, and the consequences of their actions, before saying or doing something that might hurt others (and reflect badly on themselves), I'd guess that rates of flaming would drop, as would many other forms of incivility and cruelty. I'd also surmise that incidences of flaming would still be higher than those other forms of incivility, for all the neuroscientific reasons Goleman cites.

But wouldn't it be fascinating to do a content analysis of emails sent by people who score high in empathy and other forms of social intelligence? I wonder how much their real-world social skills hold up online, and how frequently those skills begin to break down when mediated through a screen and keyboard. Research like that would truly help us gauge the uninhibiting effects of online anonymity.

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Jason Marsh is the editor in chief of Greater Good.


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