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Bad online behaviour relies on group acceptance

It's not exactly news that anonymity causes some to feel they have carte blanche to behave badly online; but new research suggests overall group attitudes can change this.

It's not exactly news that anonymity makes some people feel they have carte blanche to behave badly online; but new research suggests overall group attitudes can temper this.

(Credit: Blizzard)

Hiding behind a screen makes some people feel invulnerable; enough to bully, harass or otherwise behave in ways they wouldn't dare to in real life. Often, this is just accepted as a fact of online interactions, and those who don't accept it are told that it's just the way it is. A case in point, women who object to being harassed online are often told that bullying is simply part of being on the internet and that there's nothing that can be done about it.

Only it seems that there is: a new study conducted by researchers at Nanyang Technological University, Singapore, and Shanghai Jiao Tong University, China, has found that, in a gaming environment at least, cheats, bullies, griefers and trolls are influenced by the group dynamics of the online environment. What this means is they will behave badly when they feel their bad behaviour will be accepted — and curb such behaviour where the group denounces it.

The researchers investigated the gaming behaviours of 941 teenagers aged 13-18 who play MMOGs for an average of 14 hours a week. They found that an increase in frequency of gaming with strangers — where the subject is much less likely to face consequences for their actions — correlates with the increasing frequency of cheating.

They also found that male gamers are significantly more likely to cheat than female gamers, but also more likely to identify with a group. Female gamers, on the other hand, are more likely to cheat as a consequence of group identification.

"[This study] shows that deviant behaviours online such as game cheating are largely influenced by the online social groups people feel they belong to," the study concluded. "An online group, despite its fluid, unstable and imaginary nature, is powerful in constructing and changing its members' attitudes and views on behaviours. Hence, a behaviour that is perceived as problematic and deviant can be reconstructed with a different interpretation."

The researchers have stated this study represents the first empirical evidence that Social Identity Model of Deindividuation Effects (SIDE) play a role in online behaviour. SIDE, described in 1995 by S. D. Reichera, R. Spearsb and T. Postmes, argues that anonymity (deindividuation) increases awareness of group dynamics and identity, and therefore leads to greater conformity to group norms.

This is both bad news and good. It means that bad behaviour likely persists in online environments because it's the current expectation and therefore accepted and condoned. On the other hand, by raising our expectations of what is acceptable online behaviour, an individual's desire for community acceptance becomes a disincentive to behaving badly.

You can read the full study, "Group identification as a mediator of the effect of players' anonymity on cheating in online games", online.