Understanding Online Behaviour through ‘The Online Disinhibition Effect’

While online, some people behave in a manner that is different from how they would in person. For better or for worse, their online behaviour could be more generous and out-going or, at the other extreme, more aggressive or sociopathic.

This article explores the work of John Suler Ph.D., which examines six factors that cannot be viewed in isolation, all interacting with each other, to form The Online Disinhibition Effect.

These six factors of the online disinhibition effect are:

Dissociative Anonymity,
Solipsistic Introjection,
Dissociative Imagination,
Minimization of Authority.


There are many online platforms and portals where users can sign up with a valid email address. It would be very unusual to discover a site which requires a passport, drivers licence or any other form of valid ID to be able to register. Usernames and email addresses don’t actually tell you much about who the person really is. Therefore it’s easily accessible to become anonymous and hide all or some of a persons identity.

Some of their identity could be hidden on dating websites or their attributes on their profile could be enhanced. Fake accounts could be set up on social media platforms.

This anonymity is one of the principle factors that creates the disinhibition effect. When people have the opportunity to separate their actions online from their offline persona, they feel less vulnerable about self-disclosing and acting out of character.

There is no link or ownership between their online behaviour and offline self.

‘In the case of expressed hostilities or other deviant actions, the person can avert responsibility for those behaviours, almost as if superego restrictions and moral cognitive processes have been temporarily suspended from the online psyche.’ (J.Suler, 2004)

People may even be able to convince themselves that their online behaviour just isn’t them at all.


online behaviour invisible

In many online environments, there is no visual validation of who they are speaking to. When people visit websites or chat rooms, other people may not even know they are present at all.

This invisibility gives people the courage to go places and do things that they otherwise wouldn’t.

This power to be concealed overlaps with anonymity because anonymity is the concealment of identity. The key differences in the text communication of email, chat, instant messaging, and blogs, people may know a great deal about each other’s identities and lives. However, they still cannot see or hear each other and that has an effect on their online behaviour.

Even with everyone’s identity known, the opportunity to be physically invisible amplifies the disinhibition effect.

In traditional psychoanalytic theory, the analyst sits behind the patient in order to hide their body language or facial expression, so that the patient has free range to discuss whatever he or she wants without feeling inhibited by any physical reaction.


Through social media platforms, emails or online messaging boards users do not necessarily interact with each other in real-time. The option can be there to message instantly but the user also has the option to ignore a message or notification.

Not having to cope with the immediate reaction or response disinhibits people.

In society we have a conversation in real-time and there is a continuous flow of information, that bounces off each other and steadily moves in a world of social norms. But online if a message is left for hours, days, weeks or more then the mood can shift quickly and sharply avert social norms.   It’s easy to write a message that hard or impossible to say face to face, then ‘run away’, without checking the response for days.


Absent face-to-face cues combined with text communication can alter self-boundaries. People may feel that their mind has merged with the mind of the online companion. Reading another person’s message might be experienced as a voice within one’s head, as if that person’s psychological presence and influence have been assimilated or introjected into one’s psyche.

‘The online companion then becomes a character within one’s intrapsychic world, a character shaped partly by how the person actually presents him or herself via text communication, but also by one’s internal representational system based on personal expectations, wishes, and needs.’ (J.Suler, 2004).


online behaviour

Combine the opportunity to easily escape or dissociate from a persons online behaviour with the psychological process of creating imaginary characters, this creates a different force that
magnifies disinhibition.

The effect of this dissociative imagination surfaces in fantasy game environments in which a user consciously creates an imaginary character, but it also can influence many dimensions of online living. For people with a predisposed difficulty in distinguishing personal fantasy from social reality, the distinction between online fantasy environments and online social environments may be blurred.


In the online world a person’s status may not always be known of or as visible as it would be in the physical world. When face to face it’s clear to see someone in a school, work or home setting, where an individuals hierarchy or status is clear. Authority figures can establish themselves through their attire and the manner in which they walk and talk.

Even if people do know something about an authority figure’s offline status and power, that elevated position may have less of an effect on the person’s online presence and influence. In many environments on the Internet, everyone has an equal opportunity to voice him or herself.


The online disinhibition effect is a fascinating study and each attribute cannot be viewed in isolation, all interconnecting. Some questions around responsibility come to mind when thinking about preventing the darker use of the internet. At what point can social media platforms and forums become responsible? With the usual counter argument, will this only stifle innovation?

Protection and prevention needs to come to those who suffer at the hand of online bullying or sociopathic behaviour online, no matter what the age of the perpetrator.

Personally I think schools, governments, businesses and social media giants need to come together to find a way to educate users. To understand the responsibility of their online actions and become more attached to their online behaviour.

People’s personality is evolving with advances in technology, and we conclude with this final statement from the writer:

Personality variables also will influence the extent of this disinhibition. Rather than thinking of disinhibition as the revealing of an underlying “true self,” we can conceptualise it as a shift to a constellation within self-structure, involving clusters of affect and cognition that differ from the in-person constellation.‘ (J.Suler, 2004)

Read more about the psychology of personality here.

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