How do boredom and technology feed psychological aggression?

What roles do boredom and easy online access play in fueling the waves of incivility, bullying, and just plain meanness that can manifest themselves in the digital world?

Gaby Hinsliff, writing for The Guardian, suggests that boredom is driving a lot of interpersonal hostility in our society, including the online realm. Before anyone accuses Hinsliff of oversimplifying or excusing bad online behaviors, it’s worth reading her full opinion piece, which places boredom in a broader social context:

Boredom is a sickness, a blight on contemporary life, secondary only in its capacity for damage to the self-destructive things we do to relieve it: eating too much, getting hammered, picking fights (virtual or in real life), taking stupid risks, having affairs, mooching mindlessly around the shops buying things we don’t really need.

Hinsliff further explains how boredom may intersect with specific biases to create anti-social behavior. Here’s a snippet:

As for why malicious tweeters so often home in on female, black or gay targets, dumb prejudice obviously plays a big part, but surprisingly so may boredom. In a fascinating experiment at the University of Limerick a few years ago, participants were first bored witless by being made to do a repetitive task and then asked to suggest punishments for an imaginary Englishman convicted of beating up an Irishman. The longer they’d spent on the dull task, the more likely they became to bay for blood.

Snarkiness, and lot more

Indeed, perhaps boredom is a major contributor to trolling behaviors that feed online snarkiness. And with online access being relatively cheap and easy, we have a medium tailor made for the predictable array of oft-anonymous jabs, cheap shots, and innuendo that we see on news sites and blogs.

Incivility is one thing, but we know it can get worse, and sometimes much worse. Sadly, it’s unnecessary for me to round up a sampling of how horrible online exchanges can get, ranging from websites and blogs intended to harass or defame, to angry, hateful comments posted to online articles, columns, and blogs, to vicious e-mails containing outlandish allegations or threats of harm.

These communications may be part of orchestrated bullying and mobbing campaigns in school or work settings, or they may be what some people substitute for rational, thoughtful discussion and debate on events and issues of the day. Regardless of their underlying motivations, it’s safe to say that boredom and the Internet are not the main drivers of these horribly excessive behaviors. Rather, they are enablers and conduits for what is contained within the individuals themselves.

Less physical violence, but more psychological aggression?

In The Better Angels of Our Nature: Why Violence Has Declined (2011), noted psychologist Steven Pinker offers a thoughtful, provocative argument that physical violence in the world has declined over the years. (Go here for the Wikipedia summary.) Even accepting his main thesis, I find myself wondering if human instincts toward physical violence have been supplanted by tendencies to engage in psychological aggression.

This notion became magnified for me after reading Douglas Preston’s Trial By Fury: Internet Savagery and the Amanda Knox Case (2013), published as a “Kindle Single” extended essay. Here is the publisher’s description of the piece:

The Amanda Knox murder case generated one of the most savage outpourings of commentary the Internet has ever seen. There are countless statements calling for the murdering, raping, torturing, throat-cutting, frying, hanging, electrocution, burning, and rotting in hell of Amanda, along with her sisters, family, friends, and supporters.

. . . Trial By Fury explores this dark netherworld, identifying the people involved, and investigating their motives. It documents the real-world damage caused by these anonymous bloggers, including how they managed to get a much decorated ex-FBI agent fired from his
job. . . .

The author, Douglas Preston, is one of the foremost authorities on the Amanda Knox case. He lived in Italy for many years and is an expert on the Italian criminal justice system. He has spoken about the case on the Today show, Anderson Cooper, 48 Hours, Dateline NBC, and Fox.

Trial By Fury is a disturbing read that will push the buttons of anyone who has been concerned about the tenor of our online discourse. It left me feeling unsettled, wondering how so many people could devote enormous time and emotional energy into such angry, twisted commentary.

Surely we need to address these behaviors, but frankly I don’t have any easy answers. Although Internet culture and online bullying and harassment have received a lot of attention in recent years, I think we need to dig deeper to fully comprehend the phenomenon.


Hat tip to Dr. Ruth Namie for recommending Trial By Fury.

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