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Meera Seth's picture

"Flame First, Think Later"

A recent New York Times essay (2/20/2007) by Daniel Goleman entitled "Flame First, Think Later: New Clues to E-mail Misbehavior" details a rather common and growing social faux pas which virtually all of us are guilty of committing from time to time. Classified under the umbrella of the developing field known as social neuroscience, this phenomenon is called flaming, or more technically "online disinhibition effect," which refers to one's increasingly unrestrained behavior in an online environment, such as e-mail and Instant Messaging.

Goleman reports that an article found in the CyberPsychology & Behavior journal cites multiple potential dynamics at play here, including "the anonymity of a Web pseudonym, invisibility to others, the time lag between sending an e-mail message and getting feedback, the exaggerated sense of self from being alone, and the lack of any online authority figure."

Biologically speaking, our social behavior is moderated by the circuitry concentrated on the orbitofrontal cortex, which serves as our primary foundation for empathy and ensures that we appropriately interact with others based on certain signals and cues, like facial expressions and various forms of body language. If we lack the opportunity to interact face-to-face, then we consequently lack the ability to read these key cues and react suitably.

This rather novel way of looking at the brain (that is, from a social perspective) raises several interesting issues involving attitudes toward (abnormal) human behavior and such behavior's causes and methods of treatment. Furthermore, we are compelled to question the value of new technologies. Are these tools really making communication easier? Or are they just creating more harm than good?


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