How to Make the Internet More Friendly: Insights from Evolutionary Psychology

Ever since its creation by Al Gore, the Internet has revolutionized how we communicate. Sometimes, this has been a tremendous boon to society. Video call technologies like Skype and Zoom allow us to have face-to-face conversations with loved ones and colleagues across the globe with an ease that previous generations could only dream of. However, there are undeniable drawbacks to this technology. With increasing evidence of its potential harm, many state legislatures are seeking to limit the impact of online content on children legally. Virtual communication has also contributed to a significant decline in civil discourse (something sorely needed as we gear up for another contentious presidential election). People often say things to others online that they wouldn't dream of saying in person.

"Can we take any actions to change this pattern?"

Can we find effective methods to reduce harmful online communication? To answer this question, it's worth considering the environments that foster interaction. What are the origins of human politeness? Scholars who study human development suggest that one likely way we developed the ability to cooperate is through indirect communication. Sometimes referred to as 'third-party reciprocity,' indirect communication is a kind of social exchange based on the principle of 'you scratch my back, and I'll scratch someone else's, and then he'll scratch yours.' At the heart of this principle is the importance of reputation. Whether we're aware of it or not, we all carefully maintain our reputations, displaying our best behavior when we know we're being observed.

In essence, if I cultivate a reputation as someone who is generous, I'm more likely to receive generosity from others, as they perceive me as likely to reciprocate. If we think of kind acts as a form of social currency, we can think of people who are kind as having higher "credit scores" than those who are selfish. In times of need, individuals who have cultivated a reputation for giving may be more likely to receive assistance than those who have earned a reputation as a recluse. Throughout the course of evolution, this game of indirect communication helped altruism and cooperation to develop among human societies.

One source of evidence for this comes from the observation that when our behavior is observed, we tend to act in more altruistic ways. Think back to elementary school to confirm this. When a teacher is in the room, the class bully usually behaves well. But when the teacher leaves, the behavior of children can quickly become unruly.

Interestingly, the observer doesn't necessarily have to be human, or even an animate object (though it probably needs to resemble a human). In one clever experiment, researchers found that a coffee cup with a picture of eyes on it could do a decent job as a guardian of prosocial behavior. They measured contributions to a jar used to collect money for coffee that was shared in the common area of a college dorm. The coffee cup was placed at eye level, near where coffee drinkers would contribute to the collective fund. On odd weeks, there was a picture of human eyes, looking in the direction that a potential coffee drinker would be seated. On even weeks, it was a cup with a picture of flowers. In weeks when people were observing, students gave over double the usual amount to the coffee fund when the cup had eyes on it rather than flowers. Another interesting finding: When a picture of eyes is placed near a bus stop, more litter is picked up compared to when there are flower pictures.

So how can we use this information to help us behave better in our online communications?

 One actionable insight here is that anonymity can contribute to toxic virtual communications. There's little tangible risk to our reputation when we create a username or handle that has no connection to our real identities. People thus feel more uninhibited by traditional norms of mutual respect that typically govern social interaction. The result is that they behave in less courteous ways.

Linked to this, when we interact with others via the Internet, the cognitive parts of our brains sometimes forget that, behind the username or handle, there are actual people. This is the principle behind road rage. It's easy to overlook the fact that there's a real person inside the car. Even though we don't mean to, our subconscious tends to see them less as people and more as objects, leading to impolite and potentially risky actions. This is why 'cyber rage' is a phenomenon, but 'pedestrian rage' isn't. (Believe it or not, a Wall Street Journal article from 2011 covered researchers studying what could be likened to 'cyber rage,' but it rarely makes headlines; unfortunately, someone is shot or seriously injured due to road rage every two minutes.) As pedestrians, we see each other's faces and — in both conscious and subconscious ways recognize our shared humanity; not so as drivers.

How can we apply these principles to help improve online civility? 

Online anonymity should be reduced and humanity should be emphasized. (Estimates suggest that 26% of Twitter users are anonymous.) Twitter and other virtual platforms should require that usernames and profile pictures correspond to people's real identities. Newspapers should eliminate anonymous comment sections at the end of their articles. To comment, their username should be linked to their verified real name and a picture of their face. Based on principles of human psychology and how we evolved, this initial change to Web platforms would subtly yet powerfully remind us that, even in a virtual world, we are interacting with others. On a more personal level, take a moment to visualize someone's face before you send that sarcastic email or post a rude comment online. This won't solve all the problems of the Internet, but it will be a step in the right direction when we desperately need more mutual respect.

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