Why There Is So Much Online Hate, And How To Stop It In 4 Steps

Alexander Bor and Michael Bang Petersen of Aarhus University in Denmark looked into why online discussions about politics are more hostile than when they are done in person. They set out to establish that the mismatch between human psychology and the features of the online environment changes people’s behavior, biases their perceptions, and creates adverse selection effects. Their research showed that hostile political discussions resulted from status-driven individuals drawn into the political arena and were hostile both online and offline. Online discussions feel more aggressive because they are more likely to be witnessed by others.

“Some people are simply more hostile regardless of the context, and online they find a bigger audience.”

Oxytocin generates empathy

Meet a small molecule called oxytocin. Oxytocin generates empathy. That, in turn, leads to moral behavior and trust. Trust generates prosperity and even more oxytocin. It is a virtuous cycle. Paul Zak calls it the oxytocin prosperity cycle.

Oxytocin requires a physical bond. It is easier to get angry looking at the screen and berate the anonymous person on the other side than to do the same in person after you shake hands.

“Oxytocin-fueled society would be harmonious, and people would be nice to each other.”

Oxytocin-fueled society would be harmonious, and people would be nice to each other, calm, and comfortable. But for a species to survive, we also need a drive. That’s where nature came up with the hormone testosterone. To improve the gene pool, testosterone-fueled males would compete for the attention of females and would protect their mates and offspring from others. Later on, this drive transferred into ambition and the need for higher social status.

Zak points to the Trust Game experiment, where the participants automatically get a reward, say $10, just for showing up. A computer will randomly select one of the other participants and ask them whether they would transfer a portion of their $10 to another random participant. During the transfer, the money triples. So if the donor transfers $2, the receiver receives $6. She now has $16, and the donor has $8. No one knows who sent the money, but everyone knows the rules. The donor sent the money expecting the receiver reciprocates so both can get ahead. Even if the receiver sends back only $3, both will be ahead. The original receiver will have $13, and the original donor will have $11. In Zak’s experiment, the amount of money returned by the receiver was 25% of the money they got from the donor. However, on average, women sent 42%. And 30% of men returned less than 10%, while only 13% of women did the same.

The researchers concluded that the reason behind this discrepancy is that men are driven by the desire to punish others. Testosterone pushes men to enforce their will and their view of the world and punish those who oppose them. This then leads to dopamine release, making them feel good. And before someone gets offended, we are talking statistics and averages, not claiming every single individual would behave this way.

It may explain why there are so many testosterone-filled jerks in positions of power. Their preferred mode of operation is self-interest, winning at all costs and punishing the opponents. Even many women who get to the top positions in politics and leadership do it by relying on being a jerk. Psychopaths are often very socially competent people. They understand the need for social relations and, on a cognitive level, can play the game very well. The problem is that their low oxytocin levels lead them to have no empathy for others. They just don’t care. The only thing they care about is their goal, and they are able to use their social skills to get it regardless of the impact on others.

The same goes for online discourse. No one is interested in the opinions of others or in reaching some sort of agreement or middle ground. Everyone just wants to impose their will.

“In the online discourse, no one is interested in the opinions of others or in reaching some sort of agreement. Everyone just wants to impose their will.”

Cortisol and epinephrine

And then, you have two additional chemicals entering the picture: cortisol and epinephrine, also known as adrenaline. The body releases epinephrine when there is an immediate danger to facilitate a quick jolt of action. Cortisol then ensures that your heart rate doesn’t slow, your blood pressure is high, and your breathing is fast so you can sustain the action. You are ready to escape the tiger, the fire, or the flood.

Unfortunately, today when there are no tigers around, this effect is triggered by everyday anxieties like heavy traffic, toxic boss, demands of others, or overwork.

More importantly, cortisol inhibits the release of oxytocin, and that leads to less pro-social behavior. It makes sense. When you are under an attack from a tiger, you don’t think about your neighbor, but you try to save yourself first. It lowers your empathy and concern for others; all you care about at that moment is you.

“When you are stressed, you are less altruistic, and you care less about moral principles.”

The same principle is still in play today. When you are stressed out, you are less altruistic, and you care less about moral principles. Your oxytocin levels are low, and cortisol soars.

Stress can be induced by social pressure, and it can be chronic. If you see a gang of young men, usually from impoverished backgrounds roaming the streets, you see this in practice. They can’t live up to society’s expectations of breadwinners and leaders, so their cortisol levels are higher, and oxytocin production is inhibited. They are less concerned for the good of others. They are humiliated by their lower social status and struggle with economic insecurities. Cortisol and testosterone take the prime spot, and these men get angry at society and blame others for their misfortunes.

You could transfer that behavior also to the Internet. Who actually has time to endlessly bicker with others in the comment section under controversial articles? Is it the successful people? No, they are at peace with themselves and the world. Or is it those who are unhappy with their own lives and angry with the outside world blaming it for their perceived misfortunes? Again, cortisol soars, and oxytocin gets inhibited.

A trusting and prosperous society

Paul J. Zak offers four aids for creating a trusting and prosperous society.

  1. Enhanced communication – we need to socialize as much as possible and interact with all sorts of people, even those different from us. When you know your potential opponents, your oxytocin levels are higher, and you are more likely to collaborate with them rather than fight. This means being willing to get out of your social bubble and listen to the opinions of others, even if you disagree with them. Try to understand their perspective. Don’t rely on one-way electronic communication only.
  2. Positive exposure to diversity – even though nature biased us against those different from us, it hurts our long-term survival and collaboration today. The movement of goods and people across the globe is here to stay. Immigration will increase as various parts of the world get impacted by adverse weather conditions. Our ability to embrace diversity and see the positive side is important for our collaboration. In the short term, immigration may reduce trust. Still, in the long run, as the new arrivals get integrated into society, trust increases again. However, to integrate well, the new immigrants can’t be met with hostility. The distrust will remain high if the majority doesn’t allow the minority to integrate. Hostility leads only to reciprocal hostility. Hatred leads to hate.
  3. Procedural fairness – society can keep together only when clear social norms are set. Everyone understands them, and there is enough institutional integrity and procedural fairness. Everyone needs to trust the system, and the system needs to treat them equally. Institutions need to be able to create trust. If one group feels that the system penalizes them or treats them unfairly, the trust is not there. The division between races or economic classes creates the most distrust as the system is highly advantageous to one race or class of citizens.
  4. Education – improving education leads to bigger prosperity. Education closes the gap between classes, giving everyone a bigger chance for higher income, which increases trust and decreases inequality. If society invests in better education for everyone, it ultimately benefits.

Putting it all together

To get a prosperous and anger-free society and remove hate from the online world, we need to get our chemistry in balance. This means allowing our bodies to create more oxytocin and consequently build better relationships with those around us.

Don’t spend your time on anonymous online conversations bickering with others increasing each other stress levels. Get out to meet others in person. Don’t rely on electronic communication. Talk to people different from you to understand their perspectives. Promote fairness in social norms, processes, and procedures. And support educational activities that would give fair access to education to everyone.

What are your thoughts on the topic? What is the best way to remove anger from the team or society as a whole? What are your tips for keeping your inner peace? How would you build trust in a diverse team?

Photo: Engin_Akyurt / Pixabay.com

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Categories: Communication, Life

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