Online anonymity is a modern Macbeth moment

Our online world, specifically social media, can drip feed us unlimited small doses of pride on an hourly basis. Getty Images
Our online world, specifically social media, can drip feed us unlimited small doses of pride on an hourly basis. Getty Images

More than ever, we now have the power to shame and embarrass each other. The internet allows us to rapidly and indelibly broadcast people’s mistakes and misdeeds to a potentially massive audience.

The same technology also affords us transient anonymity, our very own cloaks of invisibility. Emboldened and disinhibited by our imagined anonymity, we can often say and do things about which we may later feel extremely guilty.

The internet has brought embarrassment, shame and guilt – the negative moral emotions – to the forefront of our modern lives. Psychologists and neuroscientists tend to focus overwhelmingly on the basic emotions of sadness, happiness, anxiety and anger. However, and perhaps due to the rise of social media, the moral emotions are now also beginning to attract more research attention.   

Think of the most despicable, unethical, wicked act that you have ever done; one that you got away with and nobody else knows about. Now complete the following word fragment: W_SH.

Which letter did you choose, an A or an I? If you thought of an A, making the word “wash”, then you may have just experienced the “Macbeth effect”.

This effect is named after Shakespeare’s Lady Macbeth, a character who obsessively washes her hands in a vain attempt to remove the stain of murderous sin. Studies of the Macbeth effect tend to find that when large groups of people are encouraged to focus on their past misdeeds there is a general trend towards people completing the ambiguous word fragments with cleansing-related words. So, S_AP becomes soap and not slap, and SH_ _ER becomes shower and not shaker. It is like there is a connection between feeling morally impure and wanting to get physically clean.

The world's main religions made the connection between physical cleanliness and spiritual purity millennia ago. In Christianity, for example, the idea that cleanliness is next to godliness is frequently alluded to in the Bible. Similarly, in Islam, prayer is not acceptable without ritual purity (wudu), which involves washing with water and is likened to the removal of sins. If you feel compelled to shower after being online, you might want to reconsider your internet use.

Unlike guilt, shame tends to be directed at the whole self rather than a specific act. When we feel guilty we often try to right the wrong; when we feel shame we just want to disappear. This is quite literally in some cases, as research points to strong links between shame and suicide.

Unlike guilt, shame also typically requires an audience. Once, only big media had the power to publicly shame people. Some tabloid newspapers were (still are) infamous for publicly outing wrongdoers, especially celebrities. With the internet, anyone can now broadcast information to a potentially huge audience – giving the ancient punishment of shaming a new platform.

While shame and guilt devastate, embarrassment is probably the gentlest of the moral emotions. When we feel embarrassed, we might blush. The blush has been called the hallmark of embarrassment and the silent apology. If you have never yet been embarrassed by the internet, just wait a few years and then type your own name into a Google image search, or alternatively, let your future children read your teenage Twitter or Facebook feeds.

There is one final moral emotion worth a mention: pride. Often associated with personal attributes or achievements, pride is experienced positively.

Our online world, specifically social media, can drip feed us unlimited small doses of pride on an hourly basis. Reading praise and favourable comments about the pictures we post, or seeing our tweets favourited and retweeted can give us feelings of pride. Psychologists however view pride as a two-faced emotion, differentiating “authentic” from “hubristic” pride. The latter face is associated with arrogance, conceit and vanity – also no strangers to our online world.

Dr Justin Thomas is an associate professor at Zayed University

On Twitter: @DrJustinThomas

Published: August 7, 2016 04:00 AM

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