6 Psychological Reasons Behind People’s Online Behavior

At some point in your online life, you might have wondered: Why do trolls troll? Why does my friend have to flood my Facebook feed with by-the-minute updates about the weather? Why are forum discussions so heated?

Let’s take a closer look at these questions as psychology offers some answers.

The Internet Makes Us Less Inhibited

We know that people are more likely to “act out” – whether positively or negatively – online than in real life. The question is: Why? Psychologist John Suler thinks the answer lies in the phenomenon known as the online disinhibition effect.

In his paper, Suler postulates that the aforementioned effect happens due to 6 factors: dissociative anonymity (“They’ll never know who I really am”), invisibility (“We can’t see each other online”), asynchronicity (“I can always leave my message behind without consequence”), solipsistic introjection (“This is how I see you, in my mind”), dissociative imagination (“My online persona is different from who I am in real life”), and minimization of authority (“I can do whatever I want online”). Basically, the Internet blurs the boundaries that keep our behavior in check in real life.

So, the next time you have to deal with yet another online troll, take a deep breath, chalk it up to the “online disinhibition effect”, and either respond to the other person in a constructive manner, or just don’t feed the troll altogether.

We Share Stuff That Arouses Strong Emotions

In newsrooms, “bad news sells” is considered conventional wisdom. After all, people are hardwired to be more sensitive to the bad than the good, and are therefore more responsive to topics like terrorism and worldwide epidemics.

But if it’s true that we lean more towards negativity, how is it that stories of newcomers falling in love in NYC, gifsets of cute puppies, and articles like “The Ultimate Guide to Happiness” are as viral as – if not more viral than – bad news?

According to Jonah Berger of the University of Pennsylvania, it’s not the aroused emotion per se that makes us share, but rather the intensity of that aroused emotion. “Physiological arousal can plausibly explain transmission of news or information in a wide range of settings,” he writes. “Situations that heighten arousal should boost social transmission, regardless of whether they are positive (e.g. inaugurations) or negative (e.g. panics) in nature.”

(Over)sharing Is Intrinsically Rewarding

You probably cringe, at least once, at that friend who likes to post inane statuses like “OMG, why is the weather so hot today?”. But before you type something like “Who cares?” into your friend’s “Comments” section, consider this: It may be your friend’s way of feeling better about him/herself.

That’s the conclusion of two researchers from Harvard University, who found that self-disclosure activated brain regions associated with feelings of pleasure. By sharing opinions with others, people have the opportunity to (1) validate these opinions; (2) bond with others who share the same views; and (3) learn from those who may have opposing views.

We’re Either “Integrators” Or “Segmentors”

Not everyone is predisposed to over-sharing, though. According to this article , people either separate their personal and professional lives on social media, or they don’t. The former are known as “segmentors”, while the latter are called “integrators”.

Most people are segmentors, with good reason. Employers are known to use social media to screen candidates , and if they see even a single photo of you acting in a less-than-professional manner (e.g. getting drunk and vomiting all over your friend’s dinner table), you’re automatically weeded out of the employment pool.

On the other hand, there are people who care more about self-expression than the opinions of others. Teenagers and millennials, in particular, fit this profile, which is why these people tend to be integrators. Being an integrator can be a good or a bad thing, depending on the information shared (or, in most cases, over-shared).

We Rely on Gut Feelings, Rather than Facts, to Discern the Truth

We all like to think we’re rational beings. We laugh at stories of people who do things that are, in hindsight, stupid. But that’s in hindsight.

Actually, we’re all subject to biases that influence the way we evaluate the “truthiness” of things, as Stephen Colbert puts it .  For instance, people are more likely to believe a statement if it’s written in a “high contrast” manner (black words on white background) than a “low contrast” one (white words on an aqua blue background). That may sound ridiculous at first, until you consider how one of them is easier to read than the other. When a statement feels easier to process, it’s easier to think of that statement as the truth.

We See What We Want To See

Even if we’re presented with strong evidence against our personal beliefs, we hold on to those beliefs anyway. It’s not necessarily because we’re stupid; it’s because that’s the easiest way to respond to cognitive dissonance, or the discomfort caused by two conflicting ideas held within the same mind.

As a result, we often unconsciously twist facts to support our beliefs, rather than the other way around. This is known as confirmation bias , which–if left unchecked–can cause overly long and heated discussions in places like comments sections. Also, our tendency to assume that other people think the way we do (a.k.a. false consensus effect) complicates matters.

It’s not wrong to have opinions, per se. What’s wrong is when we insist that our opinions are superior to those of others, not because of facts, but because those are our opinions.


Understanding why people behave the way they do online can go a long way. It helps you get into the mindset of the vicious troll, the oversharing friend, and the people who don’t seem to have anything better to do than post kilometric discussions in forums. Best of all, it helps you understand yourself – and, by extension, other people – and figure out how to act accordingly.


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