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The blog commentor’s gaze

The cover story of the December 9th issue of Science News, The Predator’s Gaze, is about psychopathy. The whole article is worth a read, but the brief description of psychopathy at the beginning got me thinking about something that Anil Dash wrote the other day. He highlighted a review of a B&B made by a potential guest that was upset that his many attempts to persuade the owners to accept his expired gift certificate. Anil labeled this person a sociopath:

As a public service, I offer you my analysis. This quote is how you can tell this guy is a sociopath. Not that he merely went online and vented to random strangers about his greediness. No, rather, that he was willing to concede his own willful ignorance (or illiteracy?) while complaining. The web is littered with these chuckleheads who point out their own sociopathic behavior while complaining about others.

At dinner the other night, a group of us were talking about a particularly irksome message board contributor and the subject of sociopathy came up again. This particular person seemed to be oblivious to the rules of the board, didn’t pick up on the social cues of other participants or moderators to modify his behavior, and was making public personal attacks against others while complaining that others were doing the same to him, even though they were not. Anyone who runs a community site, has comments on their blog, or participates on a message board knows this guy โ€” and it usually is a guy. He’s the fly in everyone else’s ointment, screaming in the middle a quiet conversation, and then says things like “if you hate me, I must be doing something right”.

With that in mind, some quotes from the Science News article:

Psychopaths lack a conscience and are incapable of experiencing empathy, guilt, or loyalty.

People with psychopathy don’t modify behaviors for which they’re punished and don’t learn to avoid actions that harm others, Blair proposes in the September Cognition. As a result, they fail to develop a moral sense, in his view. Blair’s theory fits with previous observations that psychopaths have difficulty learning to avoid punishments, show weak physiological responses to threats, and don’t often recognize sadness or fear in others.

He views psychopathic personalities as the product of an attention deficit. Psychopaths focus well on their explicit goals but ignore incidental information that provides perspective and guides behavior, Newman holds. Most other people, as they take action, unconsciously consult such information, for instance, rules of conduct in social settings and nonverbal signs of discomfort in those around them.

Sounds a lot like the fellow we were discussing at dinner. I don’t think most of the people that demonstrate antisocial behavior in comment threads are actually psychopaths or sociopaths (there is a difference) in real life. Rather, interacting via text strips out so much social context and “incidental information” that causes some people to display psychopathic behavior online and fail to develop an online moral sense.

Thinking about disruptive commenters in this way presents an interesting challenge. According to the article, psychopathy seems to be genetic in nature and curing people of this extreme antisocial behavior can be difficult. An Australian study cited in the article found that boys with behavioral problems reacted better to rewards for good behavior than to punishments for bad behavior. Maybe looking for ways to reward bad online community members for their good behavior as well as trying to replace some of the stripped away social context is the way forward. (A quick idea for replacing some social context: add a graphic of eyes to the text-posting interface?)