The Psychology of Anonymity

Historically, anonymity required at least of modicum of investment and effort. You could opt for the spandex suit and the horn rim glasses of Clark Kent’s Superman (or is that Superman’s Clark Kent?). You could ride into town as the tall dark stranger with the ominous six-gun such that no one dared speak to you, much less ask your name. Or at the very least you needed a grassy knoll to snipe from, or a car from which to flip a finger. But the Internet today provides options for anonymity with unprecedented ease. The result has been an opportunity to study some fascinating aspects of human psychology. Not to mention the opportunity for some interesting dinnertime conversations.

Specifically, the conversation was on Flame Baiters. This is the name given to Internet users who post on websites or send emails that are intentionally rude and insulting to a person or a group. The writing is often completely off-topic, but seems intent only on eliciting an emotional response. The Flame Baiter is most always anonymous.

The obvious first question is, why? What motivates Flame Baiters? The answers are already pretty well documented as Flame Baiters are simply online bullies. By causing someone to lose emotional control through a response to the bait, they exert their own control over them, and in this way fulfill their unsatiated need to feel empowered. This sense of empowerment can also come from the baiter’s duality should they also know their target in person. Online, they abuse their target, possibly even hinting they know the target personally, then in person they feign friendliness. This knowledge, and the resultant suspicion they hope the target will feel toward their friends serves to further the baiter’s sense of control.

So the Flame Baiter, like all bullies, has issues… likely issues they are not even aware of at a conscious level. It’s a pitiable situation, but in the greater scheme of groups in need of help, I’m not going to lose any sleep over the lack of a telethon for these people. I am intrigued though about the implication of this behavior. What does it say about the practitioners of Flame Baiting and who they are as people? What other behaviors might we expect of them?

First, I would contend that there are far more “cyber” bullies out there than there are “in-person” bullies. And while I think those who would bully to your face are likely and capable of bullying online, I suspect the converse is not true. I think the reason is simply fear and/or insecurity. It’s said that bullies don’t lack self-esteem because without it they could not bring themselves to confront and taunt people. But Flame Baiting requires no such risk. It’s somewhat tailor-made for the insecure or closet bully, and I suspect this is the sort of person that makes up the majority of the rank. So the Flame Baiter is basically revealing a hidden side of their personality. And I would claim, the truer side. By virtue of what amounts to fear, they have learned to suppress this bullying behavior when dealing with people in person. But now comes an opportunity for them to express this repressed personality without fear of physical or social retribution.

I would assert that we are never so true to our nature as when we know no one is watching. The Flame Baiter, by way of their anonymity, is not being watched, and is revealing their true self in a way that is safe for them. It seems not a big leap to expect that this same sort of person would engage in other self-serving behaviors when not under a watchful eye. I wouldn’t be surprised to find this person shoplifting, or running stop signs at deserted intersections. And while this is not abhorrent behavior, it is inherently anti-social. These people are placing their own self-interest above the needs of the whole. They play by the rules when being watched, but freely serve themselves when they feel there are no consequences.

In some ways, you could argue that this sort of behavior is more corrosive to society that the in-your-face social deviance exhibited by the conventional bully. The conventional bully is known as such and is often treated carefully and usually not trusted by society. Whereas the Flame Baiter is a wolf in sheep’s clothing. Earning your trust by day, and stealthily thwarting you by cover of darkness.

All of which brings me (curiously but unsurprisingly) to God, and why despite being an atheist I do not want to live in a world without him. God is the ultimate security camera. We are told he watches all we do and makes us accountable for those actions. And while this is often a disconcerting notion in the bathroom, I think it is absolutely the thing that keeps many would-be social deviants (of many flavors) from acting on their impulses and being their true selves. The idea of God acts as a brake on the wheel or as a lid on the pot. It gives many believers the idea that there are consequences for their actions, even if no one is watching. Without this constraint, there would be many many more people doing many worse things than Flame Baiting. There are frankly an uncomfortable number of social deviants even with a population who professes to be over 4/5 Christian. It makes me wonder how many “heretics in Christian clothing” are already out there, attending services and feigning Christian values by day, and acting on their less than Christian impulses by night.

Dawkins and Hitchens are wrong. We do not want religion to go away. The vast majority of the population is not psychologically suited for that. If anything, religion needs to strengthen its role in many people’s personal lives (maybe it could devote less time to politics?). I think the notion of a perpetual father figure might keep a few more people in line.

2 thoughts on “The Psychology of Anonymity

  1. An Atheist In The Woods

    ‘What majestic trees’!
    ‘What powerful rivers’!
    ‘What beautiful animals’!
    He said to himself.

    As he was walking alongside the river, he heard a rustling in the bushes behind him. He turned to look. He saw a 7-foot grizzly bear charge towards him. He ran as fast as he could up the path. He looked over his shoulder &

    saw that the bear was closing in on him.

    He looked over his shoulder again, & the bear was even closer. He tripped &

    fell on the ground. He rolled over to pick himself up but saw that the bear

    was right on top of him, reaching for him with his left paw &

    raising his right paw to strike him.

    At that instant the Atheist cried out, ‘Oh my God!’

    Time Stopped.
    The bear froze.
    The forest was silent.

    As a bright light shone upon the man, a voice came out of the sky.

    ‘You deny my existence for all these years, teach others I don’t exist

    and even credit creation to cosmic accident.’

    ‘Do you expect me to help you out of this predicament?

    Am I to count you as a believer’?

    The atheist looked directly into the light,

    ‘It would be hypocritical of me to suddenly ask you to treat me as a Christian now,

    but perhaps you could make the BEAR a Christian’?

    ‘Very Well,’ said the voice.

    The light went out. The sounds of the forest resumed.

    And the bear dropped his right paw, brought both paws together,

    bowed his head & spoke:

    ‘Lord bless this food, which I am about to receive from thy bounty

    through Christ our Lord, Amen.’

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