A Study on How Online Behavior Affects Face-To-Face Interactions

Category: Psychology
Last Updated: 15 May 2023
Essay type: Research
Pages: 7 Views: 156
Table of contents

Online Behavior, Offline Changes: A Consideration of Possibilities

Electronic communication, whether by computer or smart phone, is increasingly common in our digital age. Emails, text messages, and online chats fly around the world at the speed of light, connecting people who might otherwise never have met. These connections lead to everything from collaborative works of art to romances. This form of communication is not without its critics. There is a thread woven into the fabric of the dialogue around communication via electronic means which holds that it is somehow not real.

The belief that face-to-face communication is the only way to effect real change and find out who a person truly is runs rampant, at least in certain segments of society. However, there is a body of evidence that belies this assumption. It is found in the increasing number of scientific studies done to analyze various aspects of online behavior and how electronic communications can be used to facilitate change. One such study focused purely on narcissism and whether it expresses itself similarly via Facebook as it does in face-to-face encounters. The researchers tested one group of college students to determine their tendency toward narcissism. A second group of students analyzed the first group's Facebook profiles for narcissistic traits (Buffardi & Campbell, 2006).

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The results were that the Facebook profiles of narcissists were easily distinguished from those of non-narcissists with a high degree of reliability. The online expression of that disorder was not completely consistent with offline symptomology due to issues not fully explored in the study, but the predictability of online behavior based on offline diagnosis was far higher than random chance would predict. Buffardi and Campbell (2006) noted that prior research has found that online communication "may be a venue for freely expressing the true self."(p.1312) This hypothesis bears up under scrutiny when other studies are brought together to further explore the question. While online communication may or may not manifest the true self, it does lead to very real levels of communication that can be utilized to bring about positive change in an individual's offline self.

Before determining whether change can be made in someone's offline behavior via online communication, it is first necessary to see if someone's online behavior can be influenced to differ from their usual conduct. One of the most accessible means of personal expression and thus, perhaps, personal influence, is what is called the avatar. Avatars are graphics used to represent the people behind the keyboards. They can be anything from a simple picture for a message board to a fully realized human being or fantasy creature in a computer game. Multiple studies support the theory that a user's avatar can change their behavior depending on its appearance.

This is called the Proteus Effect (Yee, Bailenson, & Duchenaut, 2009), named for the shape-changing god of the waters from Greek mythology. In one supporting study, people underwent two different experiments to see if negative behavior patterns could be enhanced by the use of avatars with specific appearances (Pena, Hancock, & Merola, 2009). The first experiment assigned groups of people to use either white-robed or black-robed avatars within an online gaming environment. The researchers then had them hold discussions within the game. They were evaluated for group cohesion and aggressive conduct. The experiment showed that the people assigned black-robed avatars had heightened aggression and lower group cohesion when compared to the people assigned white-robed avatars (Pena et al, 2009).

The second experiment involved having participants view and construct stories around two Thematic Apperception Test images while using an avatar that was either of a doctor or a Ku Klux Klansman with a neutral avatar employed as a control. The stories constructed by the KKK group were more aggressive and less affiliative than those created by members of the doctor group (Pena et al, 2009). In both cases, the participants who were assigned avatars with negative and aggressive cultural associations attached to them displayed more negative and aggressive behavior. It is clear from this that what someone does online can indeed change their behavior, at least while still attached to the computer.

Following on whether anything online can influence a person's behavior is the question of whether what they do on the computer can affect their perceptions of offline reality. There are popular arguments claiming that video games can make their players more violent, but their evidence is relatively scant. However, there are clues that at least some offline issues can be influenced by online play. An early study of this topic was conducted using the multi-player online game Asheron's Call 2 (Williams, 2006). Participants were asked about their attitudes and beliefs relating to real-world violence and crime before and after playing AC2 for one month.

The researcher was investigating whether cultivation theory, normally only applied to television viewing, would carry over into online gaming. Cultivation theory holds that people are influenced by the mass media they consume. The more they watch television, according to this concept, the more it would shape their world view (Gertner & Gross, 1976). The AC2 researcher found that the opinions of his study participants changed after spending a month playing the game. However, the effect was specific to the events and types of violence they encountered while playing. No change was seen in relationship to violent acts that were outside the realm of AC2 (Williams, 2006). This suggests that the influence of online communication is by nature more targeted than that of older media, such as television. The study itself shows a correlation between online exposure and offline change.

Another aspect of online communication that needs to be addressed is whether the communication is "real," meaning whether the thoughts and emotions people express online have a relationship to their offline selves. This was partially addressed by the narcissism study, but what of more direct interactions than a Facebook wall? Bargh, McKenna, and Fitzsimons' Can You See the Real Me? Activation and Expression of the "True Self" on the Internet (2002) delved into this area. They used the concept of the "true self," based on the writings of Carl Rogers (as cited in Bargh et al, 2002), and hypothesized that the level of anonymity provided by online communication would lower the barriers to self-expression commonly kept up in face-to-face interactions. The researchers anticipated that this would expose the true self of the participants.

They conducted a total of three experiments to test this hypothesis. In each experiment, they found that communicating online changed how people interacted when compared to a real-life model. Further, they saw that it led to a deeper level of self- disclosure than face-to-face communication, leading to people liking each other more quickly (Bargh et al, 2002). This phenomenon has its physical space parallel in what's known as the "stranger on the train" effect (as cited in Bargh et al, 2002). This means we are more likely to divulge personal details to someone we just met who we don't expect to see again. Online communications happen amongst a great deal of strangers on various electronic trains. The relative anonymity of the medium is the likely cause for this effect (Bargh et al, 2002).

The "true self" theory isn't adhered to by all who study online behavior. This is not to say they believe that online communication isn't real. Rather, they feel the hidden self motif has problems. One paper dealing with the matter of online behavior claimed the phenomenon of disclosure comes from what is called "online disinhibition syndrome" (Suler, 2004). Suler identified six factors he believed contribute to this syndrome; dissociative anonymity, invisibility, asynchronicity, solipsistic introjection, and dissociative imagination (2004). All six do not have to be present to lead to the change in online behavior versus offline.

One or two would be sufficient according to his hypothesis. He went on from there, proposing a "constellations model" in which people simply show different aspects of their whole selves depending on where they are or who they're with (Suler, 2004). Considering how some people's online behavior transfers into their offline conduct with unfortunate ease, this theory makes a certain amount of sense. The fact that some people have been known to end marriages, uproot themselves, and move long distances to be with someone they met through a computer game is but one example.

The ubiquity of online communication these days is impossible to ignore. That this still- evolving medium has the power to shape perceptions and behavior is difficult to deny. How someone represents themselves when given the opportunity to assign themselves an avatar changes how they behave. But can this be harnessed for positive ends, or is this brave new world of self-expression too chaotic?

The research on that possibility is not as broad or in-depth as it could be, but there are positive signs within what exists. Rochlen, Zack, and Speyer (2004) undertook a review of the use of online therapy, which matches patients with therapists via email or online chat software. They discussed the limitations of the approach as well as the research to date on its efficacy. Despite the small pool of participants in most of their referenced studies, they saw a trend toward positive results using this therapeutic format. They also noted who would benefit more from it as well as those for whom such an approach would be difficult at best. Perhaps most importantly, they saw a real trend toward therapy patients dropping their guard and getting to their primary issues more rapidly (Rochlen et al, 2004).

When stripped down to the use of words alone, bereft of all the other social cues most take for granted, people alter their self-presentation and reveal more of themselves in a comparatively rapid fashion. As this society continues to evolve along with its technology, this realm of heightened honesty and speedier social connection just may influence the world in ways that cannot be readily predicted. Further research into how online communication affects its users is needed to better understand what is to come, if not already happening.


  1. Bargh, J. A., McKenna, K. Y., & Fitzsimons, G. M. (2002). Can you see the real me? Activation and expression of the "true self" on the Internet. Journal of social issues, 58(1), 33-48. Buffardi, L. E., & Campbell, W. K. (2008). Narcissism and social networking web sites. Personality and social psychology bulletin, 34(10), 1303-1314.
  2. Gerbner, G. & Gross, L. (1976) Living with television: The violence profile. Journal of Communication, 26(2), 172-199.
  3. Peña, J., Hancock, J. T., & Merola, N. A. (2009). The priming effects of avatars in virtual settings. Communication Research, 36(6), 838-856.
  4. Rochlen, A. B., Zack, J. S., & Speyer, C. (2004). Online therapy: Review of relevant definitions, debates, and current empirical support. Journal of clinical psychology, 60(3), 269-283. Suler, J. (2004). The online disinhibition effect. Cyberpsychology & behavior, 7(3), 321-326. Williams, D. (2006). Virtual cultivation: Online worlds, offline perceptions. Journal of Communication, 56(1), 69-87.
  5. Yee, N., Bailenson, J. N., & Ducheneaut, N. (2009). The Proteus effect: Implications of transformed digital self-representation on online and offline behavior. Communication Research.

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A Study on How Online Behavior Affects Face-To-Face Interactions. (2023, May 15). Retrieved from https://phdessay.com/a-study-on-how-online-behavior-affects-face-to-face-interactions/

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