Psychology Today: Opportunities to Feel

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tumblr_m1p3j9qln51qa5woeThis morning, before I had my first sip of coffee, I had learned the following: (1) my friends’ daughter was sick, (2) another friend, more distant, was pregnant, and (3) that legislators in my state have been embracing all sorts of policies I find harmful. That’s right, within ten minutes of waking up, Facebook had provided me with opportunities to feel sadness, joy, and anger. Contrast that with ten years ago, pre-Facebook, when I would have spent that time… staring out the window, probably. Honestly, what did I do while waiting for my coffee to brew before I had Facebook?

Read at Psychology Today

Invisibilia: Our Computers, Ourselves

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On February 13, 2015, my work was discussed on Invisibilia, a podcast on NPR that “explores the intangible forces that shape human behavior – things like ideas, beliefs, assumptions and emotions.”

The episode, Our Computers, Ourselves, asks “are computers changing human character? Is our closeness with computers changing us as a species?”  It can be heard here: http://www.npr.org/player/v2/mediaPlayer.html?action=1&t=3&islist=true&id=64&d=02-13-2015

 

Understanding the “Drive-By Nasty”

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Last week, I did an interview with Christopher Gabriel on WDAY about online anger (you can hear it here). He asked me, specifically, about some angry tweets that he labeled “drive-by nasties.” These are tweets or Facebook posts where the author doesn’t attempt to have a dialogue or any sort of civil discourse but, rather, just says something cruel or hurtful and disappears.

I took a look today and found a couple of examples (I didn’t have to look very hard).

A tweet about the economy from President Obama was met with this.

Tweet1

A Guardian Facebook post about Hillary Clinton was met with this (note how many times it was “liked” as well).

Facebook1

A Huffington Post Facebook post about Washington state’s new marijuana law that says that you can’t sell anything that may appeal strongly to kids was met with this.

Facebook2

And even a Huffington Post Facebook post with cute pictures of dogs and babies was met with this.

Facebook3

I’ve addressed online anger plenty here but these are particularly interesting because the authors don’t seem to want to have a discussion. In many cases, people responded to these posts but the authors didn’t respond back. It’s not that they were trying to start a fight, necessarily. It’s more that they just want to unload without having to deal with the consequences.

So what are these drive-bys all about?

It seems like there are a couple of thing going on. Obviously, we have people who are angry, judgmental, and disproving. They are upset about something and they want to let the world know about it. That’s actually a lot of people, though, and most of us don’t take to Twitter or Facebook to tell people off and then run away from the conflict that follows. What really stands out here is that they don’t want to be challenged in response. They want to be heard but they don’t want to listen.

I can’t help but wonder if at the root of these is a lack of confidence. They have strong beliefs but don’t really feel comfortable in defending those beliefs. People who feel secure in their positions are willing to stick around and discuss them. It’s likely insecurity that drives people away from the post-comment argument.

It’s unfortunate because social networking provides such great potential to have real conversations about complex issues. It could be (and is) used to bring smart people together from across the globe to discuss and solve problems. We can’t do that, though, if people continue to use it as dumping ground for their disapproval and frustration.

Interactive Infographic: Five Facts About Anger on Twitter

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Does it ever feel like there’s a little too much anger on Twitter.  If so, you’re not just too sensitive.  In fact, you may just be perceptive, as almost half of twitter users say they tweet “often” as a way of dealing with their anger and a lot of them hope the people they’re mad at will see it.

See the interactive infographic here for more information about how people use twitter to deal with their anger.

Fivefacts

Mob Creation

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In the interest of full disclosure, I want to start by saying I have no strong feelings about Duck Dynasty as a show.  Until about three weeks ago, I barely knew what it was.  And now that I do, I still don’t really have any strong feelings other than that Phil Robertson is quite the bigot and appears to have some ridiculous opinions about a great many things.

I do, however, have strong feelings about the online mob that was created in response to his suspension.  As an anger researcher who is particularly interested in the way people express their rage online, I watched with fascination as an angry, online mob gathered their pitchforks  and went after A&E, non-Christians, and liberals.

I watched as Twitter erupted with angry tweets from Duck Dynasty fans.  I watched people I’m friends with on Facebook, who almost never post anything, post article after article in defense of Phil Robertson.

It quickly became about much more than whether or not the show would air or whether or not his comments were appropriate. In reading through the tweets, it was clear that to his fans his suspension was an attack on hunters, the first amendment, and all Christians everywhere.

These memes flooded Twitter in the days after his suspension:

One could, of course, go through and pick these apart, as they all defy basic common sense.  Had liberals really been defending Miley Cyrus?  And were liberals the ones who suspended Robertson?   When were his constitutional rights violated, when did this become about Islam, and are you really comparing the Robertsons to the apostles?

Some of this can be explained by basic social psychology.  When members of any group (in this case, hunters, Christians, conservatives, etc.) feel attacked, they tend to lash out at the perceived attackers.  In this case, the perceived attackers were liberals, A&E and the rest of the media, non-hunters, and non-Christians.  Robertson’s supporters circled the wagons and responded the way groups that feel threatened often do.

But some of this was manufactured and that’s the part that concerns me most.  In the days after Robertson’s comments, the following was said by various Republican leaders across the country:

Former Vice-Presidential Nominee Sarah Palin (December 18th, 2013, via Facebook): “Free speech is an endangered species. Those ‘intolerants’ hatin and taking on the Duck Dynasty patriarch for voicing his personal opinion are taking on all of us.”

Governor Bobby Jindal (December 19th, 2013, via a statement released by his office): “I remember when TV networks believed in the First Amendment. It is a messed up situation when Miley Cyrus gets a laugh, and Phil Robertson gets suspended.”

Senator Ted Cruz (December 19th, 2013, via Twitter): “If you believe in free speech or religious liberty, you should be deeply dismayed over treatment of Phil Robertson”

So we have three (and there have been many others) prominent conservatives who are actively working to fuel the fire.  That alone isn’t a problem.  Politicians often try to drum up anger as a way of gaining support (here’s why, by the way).  What is a problem, though, is that they are lying to their followers as they do it.  Robertson’s first amendment rights were absolutely not violated in any way and Palin, Jindal, and Cruz must know that (see here for an explanation of how free speech doesn’t guarantee you a TV show).  I supposed it’s possible their understanding of the first amendment is so limited that they actually think this is a violation of Robertson’s first amendment rights.  But I doubt it.  Their position on this is actually inconsistent with the corporate-personhood cause they have been championing these last years (i.e., if corporations have rights, why doesn’t A&E have the right to suspend an employee for voicing something that may damage the company image).

What’s more likely is that Palin, Jindal, and Cruz knew their supporters would have a knee-jerk reaction to the idea that liberals were attacking the constitution and they deliberately lied to them in order to feed the rage and create a mob.

Such behavior is shameful and dangerous.  To that point, on December 20th, A&E had to increase security at their headquarters due to death threats and “suspicious looking packages” in response to the Robertson suspension.  It’s not fair to suggest a direct link between their comments and these death threats, but it is fair to say that their dishonest comments escalated an already emotionally charged situation.  There are consequences to mob creation.

I’m not asking them to keep quiet.  They have every right to express their opinions on this and anything else.  I’m just asking them to be honest as they do it.  I’m asking them to recognize the responsibility that comes with having so many supporters and not to fan the flames of the online mob with their dishonest rhetoric.

By Ryan C. Martin

Responding to the Angry Email: A Follow-Up

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Last June, I posted on article titled, Avoiding the Angry Email, directed at students who get frustrated with their instructors and respond with angry emails. You can read it here but, basically, it offered an explanation for how email tends to exacerbate problematic expressions of anger and offered tips on how to better handle such situations.

Like many of my posts, I decided to write it based partially on personal experiences. I had been teaching a couple of online classes that summer and had gotten a few angry emails from students who were upset about grades, policies, etc. The topic had been on my mind and, after talking with some colleagues with similar experiences, I decided to write the post. My hope was that it would be a helpful resource for instructors who wanted to share it with their students.

Interestingly, one of my students who I had had a very minor disagreement with over email read it and posted about it the online discussion forum for a class of mine that he was enrolled in. He wanted to know if he had been the motivation for the post and also wanted to express his regret over the original dispute.

Though he had not been the primary motivator for the original post, it did provide the opportunity to get feedback from the students in my class about how they would like instructors to respond when such situations arise.

Here is what they came up with:

  1. Call them on it. They said they do not think students intend on being rude most of the time and probably do not realize how they are coming across. Having an instructor let them know that their email came across as rude is good feedback for them and will help them develop better insight and learn to communicate more effectively in the future.
  2. Acknowledge that they care. One pointed out that a student has to care about the class and his or her grade in order to get angry over it. While the way they expressed it is not a good thing, the fact that they are angry probably is a good thing and it is nice for them to have that acknowledge. Something like and instructor writing, “I can see that this is important to you” or “I appreciate that you care about how you do in the class” can go a long way.
  3. Model politeness and professionalism in response. They felt that one of the best ways to let students know what is expected of them is to model it for them. Make sure your emails to them, whether it is in response to a rude email or not, reflects the courteousness and respectfulness you want them to show.
  4. Invite them to talk about it in person. They acknowledged that sometimes they are intimidated by their instructors and choose email as an easy way out. Having their instructor invite them to talk about the issue in person might open the door to healthier communication.
  5. Do not withhold assistance. One student who had experienced an email dispute with an instructor said that they appreciated that the instructor still addressed the original problem that prompted the angry email in the first place.
  6. Set the expectations ahead of time. They said that part of the problem is that students don’t always realize what their instructors want from them with regard to electronic communication and said they appreciate it when those norms are made clear at beginning of class.

 

 

“I Can’t Believe Someone Would Do That!” Why Parents Get Mad at Other Parents.

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A few weeks ago, a friend and colleague of mine wrote a really interesting blog piece on whether the focus on keeping children from swearing is misguided (you can read it here). The comments that followed her piece were the usual mix of insightful, complimentary, and argumentative. Some readers really seemed to connect with her perspective, some politely disagreed, and some were flat out rude and disrespectful. Of this last sort, at least one person suggested my friend had harmed her child by listening to rap music when she was pregnant and another seemed to question whether she was fit to be an educator.

The funny thing is that these comments were relatively tame compared to those comments you might find elsewhere on the internet. In fact, you can hardly avoid witnessing a rage filled debate when you visit the Parents Magazine page on Facebook. Posts about flash card applications for your smartphone prompt arguments over the role of technology in parenting and posts asking people how they spend their Sundays lead to arguments about the role of church. Even their “Messy Eater Photo Contest” prompted some comments about how it is wrong to let kids play with their food.

Meanwhile, just a few months ago, I found myself embroiled in my own little Facebook debate on the appropriateness of the “cry it out” approach to sleep training. While things stayed civil, there were certainly points in the discussion when I felt angry. All of these examples, coupled with many others, have made me start to wonder: Why do people get angry over the decisions that other parents make?

On the surface, it does not really make sense. Typically, we get angry when we are provoked. We get angry when we think we have been treated unfairly and when we feel we have been harmed. So why would anyone care if another parent lets his or her child play with food at the dinner table? How is it that they feel provoked or harmed by that decision? Likewise, why would someone feel unfairly treated or harmed by my friend’s decision to listen to rap music while pregnant?

Of course, there are times when it makes perfect sense to be angry over another’s parenting. Instances of abuse, neglect, etc. are an outrage and everyone should be angry about them. But, I don’t think that spending Sunday morning at the park or zoo instead of church falls into that category.

Not surprisingly, there is no research on this. It is a rather specific topic that no one seems to be exploring. Consequently, my thoughts on this are not driven as much by research as they are by theory and observations. With that in mind, here are some possible explanations as to where the anger might be coming from.

Insecurity. Parenting decisions are both difficult and deeply personal. Whether it is how long to use a car or booster seat, what to do about tantrums, or the best way to potty train, parents have to make tough decisions. When you add that there are countless and conflicting sources of information, it is easy to feel insecure about the decisions you make. When someone makes a different decision than you, it might make you feel like you are doing something wrong. If you are from the “cry it out” school of sleep training, someone saying they never let their child cry might feel like a provocation. If you never let your child play with his or her food, a Parents Magazine tribute to messy eaters might make you feel like they are saying you are too strict. Consequently, you feel angry, a common response to feeling as though your decisions and abilities are being questions or insulted.

Confidence Building. Related to this issue of insecurity, a second possibility is that the anger one feels in these instances helps build his or her confidence. In other words, if you do not always feel like the perfect parent (and most do not), maybe judging someone else makes you feel better about yourself and your abilities. When you are at dinner and see parents letting their kids eat something you would not let your kids eat, becoming angry at them might actually boost your confidence and make you feel better about something you are actually feeling insecure about. In a sense, what you might be thinking is, “I don’t have all the answers but at least I don’t do that.”

Indirect Provocation. Finally, some people may see decisions other parents make as a symptom of something bigger. For example, the regular church goer might see someone who does not take his or her kids to church as a symptom of societal decay. Someone who does not make their kids say “please” and “thank you” might be considered a symptom of a bigger problem, the lack of manners and civility in society today. These decisions then do feel like they are provocations, at least indirectly, to the person who witnesses them.

Something interesting happened as I was writing this post. I had to take a break to go pick my kids up from daycare and when I was there the teacher asked me if my four-month old was sleeping through the night. I said no, that he needs to be fed once in the middle of the night. I also mentioned, as sort of a side comment, that we put him to bed pretty early compared to most kids. She was somewhat shocked by the time we put him to bed and asked if we had considered a later bed time for him.

I admit, it made me a little angry and defensive to have her question me like that. It probably should not have. It is reasonable for a daycare worker to ask about certain habits and I imagine, from her perspective, she is wondering if a later bedtime would mean that he would take better naps when he is at daycare. I certainly would not get angry if someone challenged me in a similar way over a decision I made at work (i.e., I do not get angry when I am challenged about my attendance policy or my position on extra credit). But, like most people, I am sometimes insecure about the decisions I make as a parent and, even though I believe that an earlier bedtime is best for him, it is still easy to feel defensive when challenged.

It was a timely example given that I was writing this post when it happened. The good news, though, is that a little bit of introspection helped me work through it and better understand why I felt as I did.

By Ryan C. Martin

Anger on the Internet: What’s a Rant-Site?

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You don’t have to look too hard to find anger on the internet.  Whether through weblogs, social networking websites, or online discussion forums, people use the Internet to express their anger on a variety of topics. Online news sources routinely allow for public comments, often providing a venue for reader anger. Likewise, there are entire websites, called rant-sites, dedicated to allowing people to vent online  and a series of studies I and three other authors presented at the 2011 Annual Convention of the American Psychological Association Annual Convention explored the use of these websites, including what people get out of expressing their anger in such a way.

Rant-sites are exactly what they sound like.  They are websites designed for people to rant or vent about any topic they choose.  For an example of one of the most popular rant-sites, go to www.justrage.com.  Be warned, however, that such websites are not for the faint of heart.  Much of what you read there is offensive and some of it seems to qualify as hate-speech.  Though Just Rage has a policy against racism and hate speech, that policy doesn’t appear to be well enforced.

The project we presented included two studies exploring different facets of rant-site use.  We decided to start this line of research because so little is known about how anger is expressed online and what writers seem to get out of it.  We choose rant-sites because we thought that what happens on these websites is part of a bigger problem that is happening on social networking websites, discussion forums, etc. Our hope was to better understand why people express their anger online the way they do and what they perceive as the value of such expressions.

The first thing we did was to look simply at the content of the rants on several of these websites.  We found that, more often than not, rants are directed at a specific person, usually a spouse or romantic partner.  When not a particular person, rants were almost always directed at a large subgroup like a religious group or a political party.  By far, the most common reason for the rant was some sort of pet peeve or daily irritation (e.g., people who complain, spouse being late all the time, having to install toolbars on their web browser when they download computer software).

The second study surveyed users of such websites to learn more about how/why they use the website along with how they experience and express anger in general.  What we found was that every participant responded by indicating that they usually feel calm, relieved, or relaxed after writing their rants.   This finding alone is a bit surprising as catharsis, the act of venting or “letting it out”, is well known to have unhealthy long-term consequences.  The reports of decreased anger, then, could likely indicate that they are feeling angrier as they write the rant and that anger decreases when they are done.  They interpret that decrease as feeling relaxed and don’t recognize the increase in anger they experienced while writing.

Another interesting finding here is the sense of community that seems to develop on some of these websites.   Most participants were hoping for some sort of interaction through comments on their rants.  They reported wanting people to validate their feelings, make them laugh, or even to disagree with them.  In some ways, you could think of these websites as anonymous social networking sites where people know each other by their usernames (though, they don’t all have user names).

One of the more striking findings is that visitors of rant-sites are a fairly angry bunch in general with approximately 60% of them scoring above the 75 percentile on a measure of anger.  Likewise, approximately 10% of them reported having had a physical fight in the last month and almost all of them reporting a having a verbal fight in the last month.

Unfortunately, there is still a lot that we don’t know about online anger.  Frankly, the big problem with this line of research is that it’s very hard to find participants.  We tried to attract them with the possibility of winning a drawing for a gift card.  Though we had enough participants to do some basic analyses, it was very hard to attract people who were interested in participating.  They are posting anonymously for a reason and are not interested in providing too much information.  We had a similar problem when conducting another study on news discussion forums.  Participants just don’t want to provide much information about themselves and, until we solve that problem, we aren’t going to know much about this type of anger expression.

By Ryan C. Martin
Special thanks to my three co-authors for this presentation: Kelsey Ryan Coyier, Leah M. Van Sistine, and Kelly L. Schroeder