Why nice people become mean online

Story highlights

  • We generally conduct real-life interactions with strangers politely, but can be horrible online
  • Scientists are studying how can we defeat our inner trolls

On the evening of February 17, Professor Mary Beard posted on Twitter a photograph of herself crying.

The eminent University of Cambridge classicist, who has almost 200,000 Twitter followers, was distraught after receiving a storm of abuse online.
    This was the reaction to a comment she had made about Haiti.
      She later added "I speak from the heart (and of cource I may be wrong). But the crap I get in response just isnt on; really it isnt."
        Those tweeting support for Beard -- irrespective of whether they agreed with her initial tweet that had triggered the abusive responses -- were themselves then targeted. And when one of Beard's critics, fellow Cambridge academic Priyamvada Gopal, a woman of Asian heritage, set out her response to Beard's original tweet in an online article, she received her own torrent of abuse.
        Such constant barrages of abuse, including death threats and threats of sexual violence, is silencing people, pushing them off online platforms and further reducing the diversity of online voices and opinion. And it shows no sign of abating.
          A survey last year found that 40% of American adults had personally experienced online abuse, with almost half of them receiving severe forms of harassment, including physical threats and stalking. Seventy percent of women described online harassment as a "major problem."
          Our human ability to communicate ideas across networks of people enabled us to build the modern world. The internet offers unparalleled promise of cooperation and communication between all of humanity.
          But instead of embracing a massive extension of our social circles online, we seem to be reverting to tribalism and conflict. While we generally conduct real-life interactions with strangers politely and respectfully, online we can be horrible.
          How can we relearn the collaborative techniques that enabled us to find common ground and thrive as a species?

          Being nice to other people

          "Don't overthink it, just press the button!"
          I'm playing in a so-called public goods game at Yale University's Human Cooperation Lab. The researchers here use it as a tool to help understand how and why we cooperate, and whether we can enhance our prosocial behavior.
          I'm in a team of four people in different locations, and each of us is given the same amount of money to play with. We are asked to choose how much money we will contribute to a group pot, on the understanding that this pot will then be doubled and split equally among us.
          Even though everyone is better off collectively by contributing to a group project that no one could manage alone -- in real life, this could be paying towards a hospital building or digging a community irrigation ditch -- there is a cost at the individual level. Financially, you make more money by being more selfish.
          "If you think about it from the perspective of an individual," says lab director David Rand, "for each dollar that you contribute, it gets doubled to $2 and then split four ways -- which means each person only gets 50 cents back for the dollar they contributed."
          Rand's team has run this game with thousands of players. Half of them are asked, as I was, to decide their contribution rapidly -- within 10 seconds -- whereas the other half are asked to take their time and carefully consider their decision.
          It turns out that when people go with their gut, they are much more generous than when they spend time deliberating.
          "There is a lot of evidence that cooperation is a central feature of human evolution," says Rand. Individuals benefit, and are more likely to survive, by cooperating with the group. And being allowed to stay in the group and benefit from it is reliant on our reputation for behaving cooperatively.
          Rather than work out every time whether it's in our long-term interests to be nice, therefore, it's more efficient and less effort to have the basic rule: be nice to other people. That's why our unthinking response in the experiment is a generous one.
          In a further experiment, Rand gave some money to people who had played a round of the game. They were then asked how much they wanted to give to an anonymous stranger.
          It turned out that the people who had got used to cooperating in the first stage gave twice as much money in the second stage as the people who had got used to being selfish did. So is there something about online social media culture that makes some people behave meanly?

          'Making outrage a habit'

          I trudge a couple of blocks through driving snow to find Molly Crockett's Psychology Lab, where researchers are investigating moral decision-making in society. One area they focus on is how social emotions are transformed online, in particular moral outrage.
          Brain-imaging studies show that when people act on their moral outrage, their brain's reward center is activated -- they feel good. This makes them more likely to intervene in a similar way again.
          So, if they see somebody acting in a way that violates a social norm, by allowing their dog to foul a playground, for instance, and they publicly confront the perpetrator about it, they feel good afterward. And while challenging a violator of your community's social norms has its risks -- you may get attacked -- it also boosts your reputation.
          In our relatively peaceful lives, we are rarely faced with outrageous behavior, so we rarely see moral outrage expressed. Open up Twi