John Suler's The Psychology of Cyberspace
This article was created in 1998, revised Jan 2002 & Feb 2004
Personality Types in Cyberspace
The basic psychological features of online environments shape how people and groups behave in those realms. But that's only half the story. Online behavior will always be determined by how those features interact with the characteristics of the people in those environments. A variety of systems might be useful in classifying those characteristics. We might focus on specific features of the user, such as the person's computer skills, goals for using the internet, or demographic characteristics (age, social-economic status, occupation, etc). There also are several comprehensive theoretical systems in psychology that could help us examine how various personality types behave in cyberspace - for example, the Myers-Briggs system or Guilford's personality model.In this book I've described cyberspace as a psychological extension of the individual's intrapsychic world. It is a psychological space that can stimulate the processes of projection, acting out, and transference - that can alter sensory experience and can even create a dream-like state of mind. A theory that specializes in understanding the intrapsychic world and the various dimensions of consciousness would be especially useful in understanding this "person" side of the person/environment interaction.
Psychoanalytic theory fits that bill very well. It contains a very rich, comprehensive model of personality types resulting from 100 years of research and clinical practice. Nancy McWilliams' book Psychoanalytic Diagnosis (Guilford Press, 1994) is an excellent resource that summarizes and integrates the various psychoanalytic concepts about major personality types. For each of these types, McWilliams explores the characteristic affects, temperament, developmental organization, defenses, adaptive processes, object relations, and transference/countertransference phenomena. The personality styles discussed are:
- psychopathic (antisocial)
- depressive and manic (impulsive)
- masochistic (self-defeating)
- obsessive and compulsive
- hysterical (histrionic)
One highly productive area of research would be to explore how these personality types behave online, how they subjectively experience and react to the various psychological features of cyberspace, how they shape the online experience for others, and the pathological as well as potentially salutary aspects of their online activities. Clinical research also suggests that there are distinct cognitive styles - patterns of thinking and perceiving - associated with the different types, which might explain why different people choose one type of online activity but not others. Some interesting questions to explore might include the following:
- Does online anonymity and freedom of access encourage antisocial personalities? Are they some of the hackers of cyberspace?
- Do narcissistic people use the access to a numerous relationships as a means to gain an admiring audience.
- Do people with dissociative personalities tend to isolate their cyberspace life from their f2f lives. Do they tend to engage in the creation of multiple and distinct online identities?
- Are schizoid people attracted to the reduced intimacy resulting from online anonymity. Are they lurkers?
- Do manic people take advantage of asynchronous communication as a means to send measured responses to others, or do they naturally prefer the terse, immediate, and spontaneous conversations of chat and IM?
- Are compulsives generally drawn to computers & cyberspace for the control it gives them over their relationships and environment.
- Do histrionic people enjoy the opportunities for theatrical displays that are possible in online groups, especially in environments that provide software tools for creative self-expression?
Another type that frequents online discussion groups is the "oppositional personality" - sometimes referred to as the "passive aggressive" or "yes but" personality. With a strong predilection towards disagreeing with people, their messages in email and discussion board groups often begin and are peppered throughout with words like "but" and "however." A more subtle oppositional message may start off with "well" or the namesake "yes but." Psychodynamic theory proposes that these people struggle with underlying feelings of hostility that can only be expressed passively or indirectly, via the act of disagreeing. They also may need to oppose others as a way to firm up their somewhat fragile identity or to boost self-esteem by proving themselves right and others mistaken. People with oppositional tendencies may be drawn to the intellectually contentious atmosphere of online discussion groups. That atmosphere, combined with the difficulties in establishing one's presence in a somewhat chaotic environment that lacks the identity-grounding cues of face-to-face contact, may also amplify oppositional tendencies.
Elements of the oppositional individual and some of the other personality types are evident in jokes about the "Newsgroup Personality" - which probably represents a humorous composite of all the problematic features of these personality types (see the article about cyberspace humor).
Implicit in much of what I've written in this article is that people choose the online environments or online communication strategies that are compatible with their personality style. But do people simply slip into online interactions that feel comfortable to their intrinsic nature and cognitive style? Do some of them simply act out the underlying needs and emotions that determine who they are? It's also possible that some people choose online environments and communication tools that help them stretch beyond their usual style, that enable them to expand and enrich the ways they think, feel, and express themselves.
See also in The Psychology of Cyberspace:
The basic psychological features of cyberspace
Identity management in cyberspace
Transference to one's computer and cyberspace
The online disinhibition effect