How Chemicals In Your Brain Make You A Jerk On The Internet

I’ve recently picked up a copy of Jonah Lehrer’s How We Decide, a book I haven’t yet completed but (so far) highly recommend.  The book itself is about behavioral psychology and neuroscience, but I found it specifically enlightening in regards to the study of community management.

Anyone who does business with people online is familiar with John Gabriel’s Greater Internet Fuckwad Theory.

Courtesy, of course, of Penny Arcade.

People are jerks on the Internet.  This is not news, and a lot of digital ink has already been spent discussing and rehashing this concept, in ways both humorous and otherwise.  It’s one of the immutable laws of the Internet, and no one who has ever worked with an online community would think to tell you otherwise.  The question that is more important to community managers, of course, is why—and about this I believe Mr. Lehrer may have something to say.

Mr. Lehrer refers to an experiment conducted by a Harvard scientist named Joshua Greene.  In the experiment, which is intended to shed some light on why people make moral decisions the way they do, participants are asked to respond to moral questions while hooked up to a brain scanner.  The first of the questions is as follows:

You are the driver of a runaway trolley.  The brakes have failed.  The trolley is approaching a fork in the track at top speed.  If you do nothing, the train will stay left, where it will run over five maintenance workers who are fixing the track.  All five workers will die.  However, if you steer the train right—this involves flicking a switch and turning the wheel—you will swerve onto a track where there is one maintenance worker.  What do you do?  Are you willing to intervene and change the path of the trolley?

According to Mr. Lehrer, roughly 95% of participants in this study agree that they would throw the switch—that changing the track is the right thing to do.  Some even go so far as to claim a moral imperative—that not changing the track is a moral failure on the part of the trolley driver.  A second thought experiment is then posed:

You are standing on a footbridge over the trolley track.  You see a trolley racing out of control, speeding toward five workmen who are fixing the track.  All five men will die unless the trolley can be stopped.  Standing next to you on the footbridge is a very large man.  He is leaning over the railing, watching the trolley hurtle toward the men.  If you sneak up on the man and give him a little push, he will fall over the railing and into the path of the trolley.  Because he is so big, he will stop the trolley from killing the maintenance workers.  Do you push the man off the footbridge?  Or do you allow five men to die?

Lehrer notes that in this scenario, despite the fact that the mathematics of the situation—five lives or one—are identical, almost no one is willing to make the decision to kill the one and save the five.  The experimenter reasons that these represent two different classes of moral decision, calling them “personal” and “impersonal” moral decisions.  In the former scenario, all I really do is flick a switch and turn a wheel.  In the second, I must physically pick up and fling a stranger to a horrible death.  I am physically using my body to do harm to his body.  In the former, there is a layer of abstraction between myself and the horrible act I have been forced to commit.  In the latter, I am forced to look my own actions (and the victim thereof) in the eye.  What was a moral imperative, suddenly becomes murder.

The interesting thing about this is that, as Greene points out, this distinction is not a vague or fuzzy one—it’s actually hard-wired, directly into our brains.  When the subject is presented with the second choice, an entirely different set of neurons lights up.  The decision is made in a different part of the brain.

Before I started working for Wowhead, I worked for the ZAM Network—at the time, a holding company that owned a number of different MMO sites, including Allakhazam, Thottbot, and the MMOUI network of sites.  When Wowhead became part of the ZAM Network, no announcement was made right away—the team wanted to be able to spend some time time discussing how exactly the announcement would be made.

This is the Internet, though, and nothing stays a secret for long.  Within an hour after the paperwork had been finalized, the info was leaked on a tech blog that Wowhead had been purchased.  In response, we wrote a hurried announcement for the front page of the site, talked a little bit about why Wowhead had taken this step, and provided an email address for people to contact.  My first job working on Wowhead was to monitor the emails coming in to this address.

Over the course of the next two weeks, we received hundreds of emails.  Many of them were complimentary, curious, or just had simple questions, but a good number of them were written in outrage—people were furious, angry that Wowhead had “sold out”.  My (self-assumed) responsibility was to read, understand, and respond to every one of these emails.

As I wrote these responses, I noticed something odd—the minute the writer of the angry email received a response, their tone changed completely.  It was as though the writers didn’t realize that these emails did not simply get dumped into a virtual bin somewhere—they were shocked to find that a real, honest-to-goodness human being was reading these responses, and hand-writing individual replies back to each one.  The moment one of these replies was received, the writers would back off immediately and apologize for being harsh.  I didn’t have to say much—just a little “hey, we’re not going anywhere or changing everything, give us a chance”—and people calmed down very quickly.

People are jerks on the Internet.  But I don’t think the reason for this is because the anonymity shields them from consequences—increasingly, people are becoming married to their usernames.  I know that if you google “Malgayne“, you can quickly find anything I’ve ever written.  If I were to post something embarrassing, rude, or ill-advised on this blog, anyone who was offended could spend ten minutes matching my username to my Twitter account and Facebook, which would give them anything they needed to know to find me in the future.  I am not anonymous enough that I can shield myself from dealing with the consequences of what I say.

No, people are jerks on the internet because as far as your brain cells are concerned, no one else on the Internet is a real person.

The Internet is the trolley switch that keeps me from realizing that by taking this action, I will be murdering a human being.  It’s the thin layer of implausibility which interferes with my brain’s ability to make the connection that by being a dick to this guy on a forum, I’m actually bullying him just as much as I would be if I called him an asshole to his face on the street.  It’s the colorful set of pixels that keeps me from realizing that this gnome I’m griefing in World of Warcraft is a real person somewhere—somebody who had a hard day and just wants to relax by farming some leather, and now I’ve taken even that from him by camping his corpse for 45 minutes.

In order to effectively manage an online community, we need to realize that this is not simple “bad behavior” on the part of our users—it’s chemical.  The decisions we make when interacting with people online are governed by an entirely different part of the brain than the decisions we make when interacting with people in person.  Even fine, righteous, morally upstanding people behave differently when they’re dealing with people online, because suddenly interpersonal ethics are being governed by a part of the brain that was built for something else entirely.

If we want to be good community managers, we need to remember two important things:

  1. Every time we feel tempted to be rude, cruel, or judgmental towards someone else, we must forcibly remind ourselves that behind those pixels is a real person, with real feelings and real wishes that need to be addressed, and:
  2. Unless forcibly reminded, no one—no matter how good a person they may be—can be expected to consistently abide by #1.

For those who are interested, Jonah Lehrer maintains his own blog, called The Frontal Cortex, at

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Published by Malgayne

Community Manager at Google. Formerly at Sourcebits, Spark Plug Games, Zynga, and I like chiptunes and hefeweizen.

16 thoughts on “How Chemicals In Your Brain Make You A Jerk On The Internet

  1. I remember encountering a possibly related phenomenon a lot in WoW. One of the things I loved most about WoW was the experience of taking a PUG and making it run like a well-oiled machine. The key to that, I found, was not skill, but coordination – and the key to coordination was not communication, but talking. My experience was that just giving terse orders to my PUG-mates got people’s hackles up, and generally acting like people are expected to act on the Internet. Using complete sentences and an adult vocabulary, even in the days before WoW-native voice chat, often got people acting like people. I wonder if the reason for that was that using adult-level communication helped these people’s brains see me, and by extension the others in the PUG, as real people?

    1. Natalie’s original post on this topic can be found at, for those who are interested.

      And I’m not sure how much of this is the “real person” issue. I think there’s an element of that, but I think it also ties into the whole group mentality—that people tend to behave at the level they feel the people around them are behaving.

  2. I find your viewpoint fascinating, and partly right. I suspect some people are still voluntarily hiding behind their anonymity, and they’d kill the big guy if they were absolutely sure (or rather “convinced”, total anonymity is a myth…) that no one could identify them. Others simply don’t really care about human beings, in the real and virtual worlds.

    Being a community manager who just came back from gamescom, I loved meeting fans and associating faces with online nicknames (or even facebook avatars!). This human connection is paramount, it’s what a “real” communication needs.

    1. Good read and thanks.

      I’ve learned also that its amazing how people change their tone and behaviors when spoken to like a human being… even trolls, in fact it tends to completely disarm them.

      During my time managing Puggernaut I’ve been very fortunate to experience pretty much a drama-free community so far. Sure, there have been problems but its the way the leadership team and I deal with the problems that makes for the success we enjoy, as we always communicate from a place of neutrality and focusing on what is comfortable and what is not, rather than right or wrong, like or dislike. And sure, there are times when something was outright wrong but still, our focus on method of communication remains. And for the most part, it seems to work most always, so long as the communication itself is sincere and not using the method as a tool of manipulation in any way.

      Its amazing to me how much this is like rubbing a man eating shark on the belly; its like those big teeth become giant dentures. When running gaming events I’ve noticed its more how you talk and how tuned into others you are the make a huge difference. When people realize they are dealing with a human, as you point out, attitudes and behaviors change rapidly, even apologies follow.

      But to your point, yes, people on the Net tend to be jerks. I wonder if this is the result of living in a service-oriented society (pretty much any country nowadays) and the feeling of disconnect that people must feel. I mean, we don’t kill our own food, we don’t have to make our own clothing… heck we don’t even have to even give a thought to how we’re gonna get around for the day…. all of us, living in our own little bubbles. That said, its the human connection, the humanity in the connection that bursts the bubble and allows us to breath together.

  3. Nice comparison, it immediately made sense when reading the “the internet is the trolley switch”-point.

    Still, I think anonymity has quite a big factor as well. Most people I’ve seen that acted rude, trolled, or was downright unpleasant, didn’t have any information connecting them to other places. Naturally, there’s exceptions – but I haven’t seen many.

  4. That book sounds amazing. These sentences especially.

    “If you sneak up on the man and give him a little push, he will fall over the railing and … stop the trolley from killing the maintenance workers.”


  5. I’d actually tend to think that this sort of behavior is less an issue of being anonymous and more one of being removed from the meaningful consequences of your behavior. For example, if someone is a jerk on a forum the worst case scenario for him is that he gets banned. More likely he will just invite angry, jerky comment which he may ignore or read and give respose as he likes. Being a jerk in a WoW PUG has, at worst, the immediate consequence of you being ejected from the PUG which results only in a 20 min or so wait before you’re in another. Being a jerk to someone in person forces said jerk to deal with the consequences of his actions, be they an argument, the offended party running off in tears or an altercation. Say what you will, my experience is that the threat of physical retaliation to extreme rudeness is what prevents a lot of it from happening in person. Malgayne more or less already addressed this with the notion that interactions on the internet are not precieved as being interactions with actual people (and therefore conceptually have no meaningful consequences in addition to there being an almost zero chance of there actually being meaningful consequences), but it’s interesting to me that people look more at the anonymity side of it.

  6. On this one, actually, I think I disagree.

    Consider the consequences of mouthing off to your WoW guild. In some cases, this costs you DKP—which can represent weeks of time and investment on your part. In others, it can result in being ejected from the raid, the consequences of which mean an entire week wasted if you’re looking to get gear, not to mention the difficulty you might have getting invited next week. In extreme cases it can involve being ejected from your guild entirely, which can represent a MASSIVE loss of time, energy, and relationships.

    Compare this to shouting obscenities at a stranger in the street. What happens to you then? Most of the time, the stranger tries to ignore you. Sometimes he might shout back. In extreme cases, other people might shout at you, or in the most extreme call the police—who would then politely ask you to leave, and only at THAT point would the threat of arrest become a reality. All of these consequences have vanished completely as soon as you turn the corner.

    Compare these two, and then ask yourself which of the two seems like a “bigger deal”, or which of the two you’re more likely to do. I admit that there’s a possibility that people don’t shout obscenities at strangers in the street because they’re afraid someone will beat them up—but I strongly doubt that’s the primary restricting factor. I think the primary restricting factor is that “people just don’t DO that”.

  7. Interesting that I’m not the only person who thinks it’s not anonymity.

    I think another factor in forgetting that you’re dealing with real people on the internet (besides what you’ve mentioned) is that it exacerbates the tendency to generalize too much based on too little information.

    I play WoW, and I’ve always been most comfortable in a healing role. Whenever I DO dps, it’s almost exclusively as a melee DPS (for a long time I only had a paladin at max level). When Cata rolled around I figured I had a better chance of catching up gearing wise on the 80’s I never played, so I set out to level some of my 80 alts that had been languishing in quest gear for a while, including my fire mage. It turns out that I am AWFUL at ranged DPS. I go from a person who’s fairly good at this game to one who can’t move out of the fire and DPS at the same time, and I found this in Cata heroics.

    And it struck me, one day while pugging, that this is the first and only impression that a lot of these players are getting of me. If they assume that that impression is accurate to my ability to play WoW as a whole, they are going to come away thinking I’m awful at this game. Then, it further struck me that making assumptions about impressions like that is pretty much the first thing I do with complete strangers in WoW. I make this wild assumption that people are uncomplicated, and their level of play does not vary at all with such factors as latency, class/spec choice, how well they feel that day, if they’re sleepy, or if they have one of those occasional brain farts we all do. These are not necessarily negative assumptions, just huge assumptions based on a few small examples of poor play.

    I think that happens in online communities as well. If someone say something really stupid in offline personal communication, you generally don’t immediately assume that s/he is a moron. You make allowances, up to a point. “Oh well, maybe he didn’t understand what we were talking about.” Or “well maybe she’s just not really interested in that field of study but knows a lot about a lot of other things.” Sometimes even “well he’s clearly drunk so I can hardly blame him.” I find I have to force myself to do that online, rather than writing someone off for one dumb comment. Part of forgetting that people are human is forgetting that they are complex.

    1. That’s a difficult lesson for a lot of us to learn, I think. I get REALLY embarrassed when I’m playing WoW and I do something dumb, because I think to myself, “This guy is going to think I’m a scrub, and I’m not–I swear!”

      Incidentally, glad to see people are still reading. I’m still very proud of this post. :)

  8. I’m going to have to disagree with that thought experiment. While “the math” is the same, the scenario’s different. In situation 1, either 5 men or 1 men will die. Either one of those things will happen. Assuming all human lives are equal, you have to only kill the 1. But both groups have placed themselves in a position that may result in their death. They’re both equally screwed, so I’m not “killing” anyone, I’m only limiting losses. I either save 4 or save 1.

    In scenario 2, where I can push a fat man to save the others, I wouldn’t. Not because it’s personal, but because he’s got nothing to do with it. If he wants to sacrifice himself, fine, but I’m not going to make that choice for him. He’s not in harm’s way unless I put him there. My options are kill 1 to save 5, or watch 5 people that put themselves in harm’s way die.

    I don’t see there being a layer of abstraction there, and I’d argue that the respondents didn’t either.

    1. Hmm…I’d have to think about it, but that seems like a bit of a stretch to me. I mean, “working on a railroad track” is not exactly “putting yourself in harm’s way” any more than peering over a scaffolding above a railroad track is. I don’t think people who go working on the railroad do so with the active knowledge that they’re running the risk of getting hit by a train at any given time. All forms of physical labor have their dangers, to be sure, but railroad workers aren’t like firefighters or police officers—they’re not the kind of job where you expect to be in mortal danger on a weekly basis.

      Let me ask you this: Do you think that a thought experiment could be designed that would remove that bias? And if so, do you think that if that experiment were used, the results would come back noticeably different?

      1. I was trying to devise a thought experiment that would actually place the abstraction in the experiment, but it was getting tough. In the experiment as given, you have to assume that it’s an unreasonable scenario (why are they working on a track that currently has a train on it, and why don’t they have any warning. Trains are kind of bound to a particular path. If there’s enough time for you to switch tracks, there should be enough time for them to get off the track, etc.) but you also have to assume that they’re no matter what you do. You don’t actually do any killing. There’s an inevitability, you can route it, there’s no culpability.

        In option 2, 5 people have an inescapable death, and you can kill one unrelated person to save them.

        I feel it is an important point. If both of the two groups’ lives were forfeit, and I had to decide which group had to die, all things equal, I would choose the smaller group every time. Regardless of how personal or impersonal it got. Heck, if my choice were push a switch over the internet to kill the 5, or walk up and shoot the 1 point blank, I’d still kill the 1.

      2. I think you’re making an abstraction that doesn’t really exist, and I have a hunch that this may be your brain trying to rationalize away the natural inclination that you already have—that the second scenario is somehow different. Obviously we don’t want to believe that it’s different because of brain chemicals. It’s hard to even wrap your head around the idea that brain chemicals can dictate moral decisions.

        To put it in concrete terms, you claim that in the first example there’s “no culpability” because you’re not “actually doing any killing.” Do you think that defense would hold up in court? Or with the grieving mother of the person standing on the track when you threw the switch?

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