How Do Humans Behave When Not Being Observed?

FROM THE LECTURE SERIES: The Surveillance State: Big Data, Freedom, and You

By Paul Rosenzweig, The George Washington University Law School

Anonymity has a huge impact on people’s behavior, especially in today’s society that is dominated by social networks. Social surveillance can result in negative as well as positive outcomes. But, how does anonymity, or the lack of surveillance, affect our behavior?

Image showing a person involved in digital crime.
In the cyber world, a person can display bad behavior due to the absence of a watchful eye. (Image:

Online Disinhibition Effect

As one might expect, some evidence suggests that in the absence of a watchful eye, anonymity fosters aberrantly bad behavior. It is easy to recognize that anonymous perpetrators are ruder and more abusive than those who can be identified. The most commonplace is in the cyber domain where anonymity is common. This effect is sometimes known as the “online disinhibition effect”.

Social norms that are present in face-to-face conversations seem to disappear in the cyber world. It isn’t sure exactly where this lack of inhibition comes from. Some of it stems from anonymity and some also stem from the related, yet distinct, problem of invisibility.

Another cause for this effect is sometimes called asynchronicity. Some people see it as a second world where life is just a game and the regular rules of conduct such as obligations of honesty and kindness do not apply.


Image showing a computer hacker.
Cyberbullying is a result of anonymity in the digital domain. (Image: New Africa/Shutterstock)

The sad rise of cyberbullying is a particularly unfortunate example of harmful behavior that comes from anonymity. Let’s consider the infamous Lori Drew case. Lori Drew’s daughter was having a fight with another teenager. In response, Drew created a fake account on MySpace—an early rival to Facebook—and she used it to verbally abuse the teenager with whom her daughter was at odds. The harassed teenager ultimately committed suicide, and federal authorities charged Drew with a crime—specifically with violating the website’s terms of service under the Computer Fraud and Abuse Act.

Another troubling example of malevolent anonymity is the growth of the phenomenon known as revenge porn. It involves jilted lovers who publish sexually explicit photographs of their former partners without consent. Anonymity makes it harder to identify such individuals.

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The Positive Outcomes of Anonymity

Anonymity also allows for positive social engagement. Take a look at an example from the Journal of Consumer Research, which draws on research by professors Keith Wilcox of Columbia University and Andrew T. Stephen of the University of Pittsburgh.

These academics found that in social networks that allow for anonymity—such as the use of pseudonymous screen names or handles—people tend to present a positive self-image of themselves to others. This leads to increase in self-esteem, while also tending to reduce self-control to some extent. Thus, this is a different way of looking at the same anonymity issue.

How Does Anonymity Enhance Privacy?

A more detailed study of how anonymity enhances privacy, in some ways, comes from Benjamin Wittes and Jodie Liu of the Brookings Institution in Washington D.C. They looked, for example, at Google.

Google runs some fairly intrusive analytics that unmasks one’s privacy and lets the company build a picture about who a person is. But Google also offers a veil of privacy that enables individuals to search for sensitive information of interest from the security of their own home without anyone else knowing what topics they are interested in.

Wittes and Liu looked at one functionality of Google, to see how it might positively reflect enhanced privacy through partial anonymity. This is the feature known as autocomplete. If a person types a phrase into the Google search bar, the company’s algorithms try to predict what he or she is looking for and automatically generate suggested completions for the phrase. Although Google’s analytic system is proprietary, it is fair to say that the popularity of a search plays a large role in the autocomplete function.

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Psychological Effects in Observers

Though one might hope to imagine that the psychological effect of being a watcher is always so salutary, sadly that is not the case. Take the example of surveillance drone operators, whom people think of as a contemporary, technology-empowered observer. For years, psychologists thought that Post Traumatic Stress Disorder, or PTSD, arose from fear conditioning, that is, from the lasting psychological ramifications of mortal terror. Drone pilots typically do not experience that fear; they’re physically safe far away from the battlefield.

But some suffer from PTSD, nevertheless, due to their sensitivity to the violence, they witness inflicted on others or perhaps even reflecting the watchman’s failure—or inability—to do anything about it. Not all observers suffer equally. Many, it seems, are readily able to disassociate themselves from what they are seeing and doing.

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Milgram Experiments

Image showing an advertisement for the Milgram experiment.
The Milgram experiment tested obedience to authority. (Image: Poolisfun/Public domain)

The Milgram experiment is one of the most famous social science experiments that test obedience to authority.

It consisted of a series of psychological tests performed in the early 1960s by Stanley Milgram at Yale University. Volunteers were divided into groups of teachers and learners.

The teachers were put in the position of applying electric shocks, supposedly to stimulate better learning. However, the teacher did not administer any electricity to the learner, who was in on the test. The shocks were not real, but as the test went on, the learner would yell and scream and bang on the wall to get the unsuspecting teacher to stop. If the teacher did want to stop, he was directed not to by an authority figure who was in charge of the experiment.

In Milgram’s experiment, 65% of the teachers ultimately consented to administer massive 450-volt shocks, which would have been fatal to the learner had they been real. The scenario has been subject to much criticism as unethical or immoral. But it stands, nevertheless, as a chilling reminder that the effects on the observer are often less pronounced than on the observed.

Common Questions about How Humans Behave When Not Being Observed

Q: Why does anonymity foster bad behavior in the cyber world?

Anonymity fosters bad behavior in the cyber world because social norms that are present in face-to-face conversations seem to disappear in the cyber world.

Q: What positive outcomes of anonymity did professors Keith Wilcox and Andrew T. Stephen find?

Professors Keith Wilcox and Andrew T. Stephen found that social networks that allow for anonymity lead to increases in self-esteem, while also tending to reduce self-control to some extent.

Q: What is the function of the autocomplete feature of Google?

If a person types a phrase into the Google search bar, the company’s algorithms try to predict what he or she is looking for and automatically generate suggested completions for the phrase.