It’s probably no surprise to anyone that we’re meaner online than we would be face to face. But a new study has found that to be literally true:
Far more than anonymity or invisibility, whether or not the subjects had to look into their partner’s eyes predicted how mean they were. When their eyes were hidden, participants were twice as likely to be hostile. Even if the subjects were both unrecognizable (with only their eyes on screen) and anonymous, they rarely made threats if they maintained eye contact. Although no one knows exactly why eye contact is so crucial, lead author and behavioral scientist Noam Lapidot-Lefler, now at the Max Stern Yezreel Valley College in Israel, notes that seeing a partner’s eyes “helps you understand the other person’s feelings, the signals that the person is trying to send you,” which fosters empathy and communication.
My guess would be that our faces, and especially our eyes, are how we connect with other people. Faces most demonstrate our emotions, so empathy likely comes from eye contact. Since we’re used to reading information from a variety of anonymous sources, it’s harder to conceive of a real person being behind text. Yet since most of the internet is text-based, it can be difficult to make a personal, empathic connection.
And this is coming from a guy who met, courted, and got engaged to a woman entirely online. It took prolonged expose to one another’s writing style to begin to truly understand the emotion or expressions behind them. Certainly we hit it off early on, but I know for me I didn’t really connect with my future wife until we both had a similar reaction to a common experience.
That also likely explains the popularity of YouTube. People engage with faces more than just text, and so a medium that allows for faces and emotion is easier to engage with.
It would be an interesting experience to increase the size of avatars on Facebook and see if it changes how we interact with one another. Would greater visibility of faces make a difference in how we engage with someone? Would we be kinder to one another? I think we should find out.