With a presidential campaign, health care and the gun control debate in the news these days, one can't help getting sucked into the flame wars that are Internet comment threads. But psychologists say this addictive form of vitriolic back and forth should be avoided — or simply censored by online media outlets — because it actually damages society and mental health.
These days, online comments "are extraordinarily aggressive, without resolving anything," said Art Markman, a professor of psychology at the University of Texas at Austin. "At the end of it you can't possibly feel like anybody heard you. Having a strong emotional experience that doesn't resolve itself in any healthy way can't be a good thing."
If it's so unsatisfying and unhealthy, why do we do it?
A perfect storm of factors come together to engender the rudeness and aggression seen in the comments' sections of Web pages, Markman said. First, commenters are often virtually anonymous, and thus, unaccountable for their rudeness. Second, they are at a distance from the target of their anger — be it the article they're commenting on or another comment on that article — and people tend to antagonize distant abstractions more easily than living, breathing interlocutors. Third, it's easier to be nasty in writing than in speech, hence the now somewhat outmoded practice of leaving angry notes (back when people used paper), Markman said. [Infographic: A Typical Day on the Internet]
And because comment-section discourses don't happen in real time, commenters can write lengthy monologues, which tend to entrench them in their extreme viewpoint. "When you're having a conversation in person, who actually gets to deliver a monologue except people in the movies? Even if you get angry, people are talking back and forth and so eventually you have to calm down and listen so you can have a conversation," Markman told Life's Little Mysteries, a sister site to LiveScience.
Chiming in on comment threads may even give one a feeling of accomplishment, albeit a false one. "There is so much going on in our lives that it is hard to find time to get out and physically help a cause, which makes 'armchair activism' an enticing [proposition]," a blogger at Daily Kos opined in a July 23 article.
And finally, Edward Wasserman, Knight Professor in Journalism Ethics at Washington and Lee University, noted another cause of the vitriol: bad examples set by the media. "Unfortunately, mainstream media have made a fortune teaching people the wrong ways to talk to each other, offering up Jerry Springer, Crossfire, Bill O'Reilly. People understandably conclude rage is the political vernacular, that this is how public ideas are talked about," Wasserman wrote in an article on his university's website. "It isn't."
Communication, the scholars say, is really about taking someone else's perspective, understanding it, and responding. "Tone of voice and gesture can have a large influence on your ability to understand what someone is saying," Markman said. "The further away from face-to-face, real-time dialogue you get, the harder it is to communicate."
In his opinion, media outlets should cut down on the anger and hatred that have become the norm in reader exchanges. "It's valuable to allow all sides of an argument to be heard. But it's not valuable for there to be personal attacks, or to have messages with an extremely angry tone. Even someone who is making a legitimate point but with an angry tone is hurting the nature of the argument, because they are promoting people to respond in kind," he said. "If on a website comments are left up that are making personal attacks in the nastiest way, you're sending the message that this is acceptable human behavior." [Niceness Is in Your DNA, Scientists Find]
For their part, people should seek out actual human beings to converse with, Markman said — and we should make a point of including a few people in our social circles who think differently from us. "You'll develop a healthy respect for people whose opinions differ from your own," he said.
Working out solutions to the kinds of hard problems that tend to garner the most comments online requires lengthy discussion and compromise. "The back-and-forth negotiation that goes on in having a conversation with someone you don't agree with is a skill," Markman said. And this skill is languishing, both among members of the public and our leaders.
Follow Natalie Wolchover on Twitter @nattyover or Life's Little Mysteries @llmysteries. We're also on Facebook & Google+.