Posted by Anonymous

Pexels / PixabaySource: Pexels / Pixabay

I know a guy named Anonymous , and he's not very nice. Look at the insulting and sarcastic comments that he has left on my blog over the years:

Comment (from one blog responder to another)—by Anonymous :

You keep posting the same claptrap to many articles here. OK, I get the opinions, which you've posted dozens of times, but then you get to this logical nonsense which you also seem to never understand the stupidity of, since you keep posting it again and again

Comment (from one blog responder to another)—by Anonymous :

(insert sarcasm here): Oh, so brilliant. Your insight is overwhelming, oh great one. I'm stunned. Floored. We look forward to more of your trenchant insights.

Comment (from one blog responder to another)—by Anonymous :

Maybe, in the end, it's better to care, than to become more of a d*ckhead every day.

Comment from one blog responder to me as author—by Anonymous :

This type of judgement and criticism is counter intuitive to any true psychological perspective and quite frankly is just asinine and foolish. Psychology Today should be ashamed for publishing such sh*t!

Wow, Anonymous , you need to brush up on your etiquette! Didn't your mom teach you any manners!? ...

Of course, the joke here is this: Each of these anonymous comments was probably left by a different person. And this fact speaks to a large-scale issue that underlies modern social communication in a big way.

"You see much more of your children once they leave home." -Lucille Ball

Social Minds Evolved for Small Communities

The evolutionary perspective on behavior (see my brief textbook, Evolutionary Psychology 101 ), underscores the fact that our minds evolved not for modern conditions but, rather, our minds evolved to match the kinds of small-scale, nomadic conditions that existed in the African Savanna for the eons that surrounded human evolution prior to the advent of agriculture. Such groups rarely exceeded 150 individuals and they included many relatives along with many individuals with whom each person had long-standing social ties. There were no strangers in the group.

And there was no written word (which certainly evolved after the advent of agriculture; see Fagan & Beck, 1996). Under such conditions, opportunities for anonymous communication were few and far between. If you were going to tell something to someone, it pretty much had to be directly to that person's face.

Deindividuated Behavior is Nasty Behavior

In the modern world, of course, we communicate with others in a deindividuated manner all the time. Deindividuated behavior (see Diener, 1976) exists when someone's identity is downplayed or hidden during communication. These days, there are many forms of deindividuated communication. Consider the following examples:

  • You are on the phone with someone who refuses to reveal her name to you.
  • You are playing a video game with someone virtually and that person's screen name is HackerJacker2003
  • You get an email from someone and you have no idea who the author is.
  • You get a message from someone whose Facebook name is clearly fake.
  • You get a comment on your blog post by Anonymous

... and so forth. Deindividuated communication is nothing short of rampant in this day and age.

That wouldn't be so bad if there were no problems with the nature of deindividuated communication. But, as it turns out, there are lots of problems with deindividuated communication (see Zimbardo, 2007). When people's identities are hidden, they are more likely to engage in anti-social behavior. They are more likely to bully. They are more likely to steal. They are more likely to kill. And so forth.

Warn children about the importance of privacy and the dangers of predators and sexting. Teens need to know that once content is shared with others, they will not be able to delete or remove it completely, and includes texting of inappropriate pictures. They may also not know about or choose not to use privacy settings, and they need to be warned that sex offenders often use social networking, chat rooms, e-mail, and online gaming to contact and exploit children.

Humans did not evolve under conditions where deindividuation was common. We evolved under conditions in which we knew everyone who was communicating with us. And, generally, we knew them well. The large-scale deindividuation that surrounds modern communication is a sea change in the human experience. And not a good one.

What Can We Do About It?

Unfortunately, we often find ourselves stuck with modern advances that turn out to be unhealthy evolutionary mismatches in disguise. Processed food is such an advance. So are cigarettes and pornography. Our modern world is filled with technological advances that many argue are ultimately bad for us and that have come about largely because they exploit some facet of our evolved psychology.

Modern mechanisms of deindividuated communication fit this bill well. They are advances in communication that have all kinds of drawbacks—drawbacks that follow from the fact that these advances are mismatched from our evolutionary origins.

I'd say that step number one in fixing this issue pertains to understanding the problem. The more that people are educated in the basics of evolutionary psychology, the more that future leaders who develop technologies will be able to apply evolutionary principles in their work, coming up with ways to reduce the problems associated with evolutionary mismatch.

In short, companies that are in the business of developing new technologies should have leaders (or consultants) who are well-educated in the field of evolutionary psychology so as to be able to effectively address the human side of the products that they create. As is often the case with a large-scale social problem, education is the key.

Reduce the pace. Speak with your child in an unhurried way, pausing frequently. Wait a few seconds after your child finishes before you begin to speak. Your own easy relaxed speech will be far more effective than any advice such as “slow down” or “try it again slowly. For some children, it is also helpful to introduce a more relaxed pace of life for awhile.

In fact, perhaps a new kind of career is waiting to be created: The field of evolutionary industrial/organizational psychology. A job with a primary goal of reducing the adverse effects of mismatch in the development of new technologies that interface with humans in their daily lives. I would even be so bold as to say that companies such as Facebook and Google should start writing job ads right now!

The bottom line is that when people communicate with others under anonymous, deindividuated conditions, they often behave like jerks. It's easy to be a jerk when no one knows who you are. Modern technologies that allow for large-scale deindividuated behaviors are very problematic. They mismatch our evolved psychology, and they increase the prevalence of anti-social, nasty behavior in our worlds. I say that we use our understanding of evolutionary mismatch to develop solutions to this problem. Because, as is usually the case in life, if we don't fix it, no one will.