Why We Act Like A**holes on Social Media

And what we can do about it

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Photo by MusicFox Fx on Unsplash

You see something you don’t like, so you say something, and often, it’s not very nice.

When someones posts content on their social media page with which you vehemently disagree, there’s the high likelihood you’re going to respond. Often that response comes across in a snarky, sarcastic, and generally disparaging manner. Some people are downright viscous and abusive in their response to things that are in contrast with their own opinions or beliefs. This is especially prevalent now-a-days with our current state of heightened emotion, fear, anger, and frustration. I think 2020 has been one of the most caustic years of our lifetime, and it’s not even over! But I digress…

Why is that? Why is it that people who are genuinely nice people- people who typically conduct themselves and interactions with strangers in a decent, polite, and respectful manner in real life, turn into rabid blood sucking demon trolls online?

The internet and social media platforms offer us the potential for broader community, cooperation, and communication. However, instead of leveraging it as an extension of our social circles and the immediate world around us, it has created a from of tribe mentality full of conflict, judgment, blame, and hate.

According to a recent paper written by Psychologist John Suler, the answer lies in the phenomenon known as the Online Disinhibition Effect (ODE).

In his paper, Suler presupposes that ODE is due to 6 factors:

The Internet blurs the boundaries between what is acceptable behavior and what isn’t. It allows our inner troll to rear its ugly head and get away with it.

We also have the nasty habit of sharing stuff that arouses strong emotions. As they say in the media bad news sells. As a species, we have the tendency to gravitate towards bad news more so than the good. It’s the same reason why we are more inclined to recall bad memories than positive ones.

There’s an odd sense of arousal that accompanies sharing something controversial, which triggers an even more inflamed response from your audience, especially from those who disagree with you. Someone is going to take it personally.

And it spreads. According to research, messages with both moral and emotional words are more likely to spread on social media — each moral or emotional word in a tweet increases the likelihood of it being retweeted by 20%.

“Content that triggers outrage and that expressed outrage is much more likely to be shared,” says Yale’s Crockett Lab Director Molly Crockett. “What we’ve created online is an ecosystem that selects the most outrageous content, and pairs it with a platform where it’s easier than ever before to express outrage.”

This outrage is compounded by positive feedback such as ‘likes’, and as a result, it helps people form habits of expressing outrage because they are being told that it’s perfectly acceptable to do so.

That outrage also causes us to dehumanize the other person or group. We create an identity or label for that individual or group and say: “this is who/what they are, or this is who/what he or she is.” In our anger, or heightened egoic state, we give them/him/her whatever label seems the harshest: “stupid”, “asshole”, “idiot”, “racist”.

“When you confuse the ego that you perceive in others with their identity, it is the work of your own ego that uses this misperception to strengthen itself by being right and therefore, superior. And, through reacting with condemnation, indignation, and often anger against the perceived enemy, you strengthen the sense of separation between yourself and the other who’s ‘otherness’ has become magnified to such an extent that you can no longer feel your common humanity nor the rootedness in the one life that you share with each human being- your common divinity.” — Eckhart Tolle, ‘A New Earth’

There’s also the trigger effect: When we see something with which we strongly disagree, an emotion gets triggered in our bodies, which sends signals to the brain. Once sensory information enters the brain, it is routed to one of two ares: the prefrontal cortex, or the thinking brain; or to the lower automatic brain, the reactive brain. Emotional responses are typically routed to the latter and produce a result that says: “I need to combat this horrific offense!” The act of rationalizing is so quick that when the emotion is triggered, we often can’t stop ourselves.

Everyone will have a different response depending upon their perception of the matter. Some may find it offensive, and some may not. Those who do, immediately go into that fight or flight response mode. They either ignore the post and move on, or start a virtual WW III.

What can we do about all of this? The first step is to recognize and take ownership of your behavior. Remove the unconscious feelings of being a victim in that moment and remember your power.

The next step is to seek out and identify what is triggering you at that moment. Is it fear, sadness, jealousy, feelings of being disrespected, unappreciated, unrecognized, or unworthiness? Ask yourself what is it you’re trying to defend.

Third, recognize the emotional reaction in the body as soon as it happens, and cut it off at the pass. Don’t let it boil and fester. Try to redirect it to the thinking (rational) brain. Give yourself the opportunity to choose a different response, or no response at all.

Finally, shift your emotional state. You can do this by getting up and walking away. Breathe, detach, clear your mind. Redirect your attention onto something else. I like to do little quickie 5–10 minute guided meditations that you can find on YouTube or any given meditation app.

You can also type out your frustration or anger, but never hit send. It’s best to do this somewhere off platform so you’re not compelled to click the button in haste and anger. It’s even better if you write it out by hand in your journal, notebook, or on a piece of paper. The act of physically writing immediately takes your focus off of the person or post and directs that energy elsewhere. Plus you don’t run the risk of it accidentally being sent or posted, lest you wish to type it all out, but by then, the emotion has probably subsided, and you have given it some space.

Understanding why you or others behave in a certain way online helps you subdue that inner troll and can help you better understand the mindset of the troll that resides within them. At the end of the day, we are all fighting some sort of battle, be in internal or external. Be kind to yourself and to others. Do so before it becomes cool.


Written by

Writer & NLP Certified Coach. I teach people how to realize their greatest potential and use their gifts to make a difference in the world. I also save animals.

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