Read any Web forum, and you'll agree: people are meaner online than in “real life.” Psychologists have largely blamed this disinhibition on anonymity and invisibility: when you're online, no one knows who you are or what you look like. A new study in Computers in Human Behavior, however, suggests that above and beyond anything else, we're nasty on the Internet because we don't make eye contact with our compatriots.
Researchers at the University of Haifa in Israel asked 71 pairs of college students who did not know one another to debate an issue over Instant Messenger and try to come up with an agreeable solution. The pairs, seated in different rooms, chatted in various conditions: some were asked to share personal, identifying details; others could see side views of their partner's body through webcams; and others were asked to maintain near-constant eye contact with the aid of close-up cameras attached to the top of their computer.
Far more than anonymity or invisibility, whether or not the subjects had to look into their partner's eyes predicted how mean they were. When their eyes were hidden, participants were twice as likely to be hostile. Even if the subjects were both unrecognizable (with only their eyes on screen) and anonymous, they rarely made threats if they maintained eye contact. Although no one knows exactly why eye contact is so crucial, lead author and behavioral scientist Noam Lapidot-Lefler, now at the Max Stern Yezreel Valley College in Israel, notes that seeing a partner's eyes “helps you understand the other person's feelings, the signals that the person is trying to send you,” which fosters empathy and communication.