Virtual personalities?

Dear colleagues,

Could the Internet be changing people's personalities? Could it be causing an increase in disorders such as narcissism?

Elias Aboujaoude tackles these questions in his book Virtually you: the dangerous powers of the e-personality (Norton, 2011) . Aboujaoude is a psychiatrist working in California, specialising in obsessive-compulsive disorder. Seeing patients with debilitating conditions linked to their Internet use, he began to investigate a range of dysfunctional personality traits that seemed to manifest themselves more readily in the virtual realm. In some cases, he argues, personality characteristics that are facilitated or exaggerated through online behaviour can have an impact in the rest of a person's life - though for some Internet addicts, there is not much life offline.

To make his points, Aboujaoude gives vivid stories from his patients - for example, ones with compulsions to be online - and draws on research and examples from a range of sources.

Some people say things online they would not otherwise: "Several features unique to the Internet medium help promote online disinhibition, writes Rider University psychologist Dr. John Suler. Those include anonymity, invisibility, the loss of boundaries between individuals, and the lack of any real hierarchy in cyberspace." (p. 40) ... "against this background of disinhibited, dissociated personhood, five psychological forces will vie to assert themselves: grandiosity, or the feeling that the sky is the limit when it comes to what we can accomplish online; narcissism, or how we tend to think of ourselves as the center of gravity of the World Wide Web; darkness, or how the Internet nurtures our morbid side; regression, or the remarkable immaturity we seem capable of once we log on; and impulsivity, or the urge-driven lifestyle many fall into online." (p. 43) Aboujaoude devotes a chapter to each of these five psychological issues.

To demonstrate a collective shift in personality characteristics due to the Internet is quite a challenge. Aboujaoude gives many striking anecdotes and suggestive statistics, but in some chapters I was searching for any evidence that substantive changes had occurred. After all, features such as grandiosity and impulsivity existed long before the Internet.

Furthermore, Aboujaoude focuses on Internet-related dysfunctional behaviour. But perhaps the Internet, while accentuating some damaging patterns of thought and behaviour, at the same time serves as a medium for healing and empowerment for some individuals. Aboujaoude might not notice the comparative absence of some previously more common syndromes.

Whatever the weaknesses of Aboujaoude's argument, Virtually you serves a useful purpose in pointing to the potential psychological impact of the Internet. This is more likely to affect younger people, the so-called digital natives.

If most students in a class spend hours per week, or per day, on Facebook, is this changing the way they relate to each other and to their studies? Is putting more assignments online affecting the personality characteristics of students?

I can remember a time when people wrote letters to send in envelopes through the post, regularly visited each other in their offices, and frequently met with students face-to-face. Today, email takes up far more time than writing letters ever used to, face-to-face collegial interaction is less frequent (in part due to higher workloads), and for me the most common mode of contact with my students, outside of class, is email.

Because the expansion in online activity has happened gradually and largely voluntarily, its impacts on personality are hard to discern. So it can be useful to take note of syndromes that may be becoming more common. If problems are arising, the next question is what to do about them? What is the role of face-to-face interactions when offline interpersonal skills are declining? Do students - and staff - need special training to become aware of online risks and how to remain balanced and sane? If nothing else, there are plenty of new research topics.

Aboujaoude says "the Internet bestows on many of us a false mastery of knowledge as it convinces us that we are more qualified, educated, or mature than we truly are. In doing so, it facilitates a potentially dangerous social phenomenon - the dissolution of offline hierarchical relationships when it comes to information, be they child-parent, student-teacher, patient-doctor, or layman-expert." (198). Is this potentially dangerous, as Aboujaoude suggests, or an opportunity for collaborative learning and workplace democracy?

Brian Martin
7 October 2011

I thank Paula Arvela, Rae Campbell and Michael Matteson for helpful comments on a draft of this comment.

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