If the 'sleep of reason produces monsters' then psychological science offers the tools to awaken it

Do we each harbour a dark passenger? A malevolent psychopath? A fragile narcissist? Contrary to popular belief, decades of psychological research shows that anyone is capable of aggression, cruelty and violence. The "self" is a murky mixture of light and shade.

Lately the dark side seems to be winning. On Thursday, Downing Street called for a boycott on the website ask.fm following the tragic death of Hannah Smith. Meanwhile, the barrage of threats directed at Caroline Criado-Perez and Stella Creasy has led to several arrests and forced Twitter to work on better ways of handling abuse. Beyond triggering action and debate, these cases have fuelled the growing realisation that online abuse is disturbingly common, especially for young girls and women with public profiles.

While most of us agree there is a problem, much less has been said about possible solutions. Are our only options punitive or regulatory? As law blogger David Allen Green explains, simply banning or criminalising a behaviour doesn't make it magically disappear. Could there be more effective ways to quell online abuse without stifling freedom of speech or censoring society's most vulnerable?

Psychology may hold a big piece of the puzzle. Nearly 10 years ago, the American psychologist John Suler argued that online environments unleash aspects of our personality that we normally keep under guard – a phenomenon he referred to as the online disinhibition effect.

Suler's basic idea was that by masking their identities, abusers not only avoid accountability for their behaviour but also dissociate their online selves from their real-world selves. In real life, aggressive behaviour triggers an immediate reaction from a victim – a change in facial expression, tone of voice, body language, perhaps even violence. But in the online world these deterrents are missing or delayed, which helps abusers see their victims as faceless, imaginary cutouts who have no feelings and are unworthy of empathy.

Many aspects of Suler's theory remain untested, but a recent Israeli study found that people were less likely to issue online threats under their true identity, suggesting that anonymity is one contributing factor. However, the researchers also found that the strongest inhibitor of online aggression wasn't anonymity per se but the act of maintaining eye contact. In other words, anonymity may lay the path for aggression but the lack of social feedback is what drives the abuser on. So what can be done to reshape the cognition of an abuser? Here are five psychological interventions that might help. While none are proven to curb online abuse, they can be effective at boosting self-control, empathy and mood.

Cognitive Behavioural Therapy

This approach is grounded in the idea that changing patterns of thought can alter our emotions and behaviour. In one form of CBT called "stress inoculation training", patients begin by identifying triggers that provoke reactions of anger or aggression. They then practise self-statements to counteract their usual responses, such as "This isn't important enough to get angry about" or "I shouldn't take this personally". Some evidence suggests that CBT may be effective in reducing aggression, though whether it leads to real-world benefits for antisocial behaviour has been questioned.

Cognitive Bias Modification

Cognitive bias modification uses a range of different strategies to correct imbalances in attention or emotion. Psychologists from the University of Bristol recently showed the promise of this approach using a computerised experiment in which participants were trained to recognise happiness in ambiguous facial expressions. Interestingly, the researchers found that this simple training regime can correct negative emotional bias and reduce aggression in adolescents admitted to a youth programme.

Inhibition Training

This new approach is based on the idea that we can improve our self-control through practice. Recent studies have found that training people to start and stop very simple actions, such as pressing a button, can make them less impulsive – reducing the tendency to gamble or eat junk food. These benefits might also be enhanced by mild electrical stimulation of the prefrontal cortex, a brain region that is important for learning and decision-making. As yet, we don't know whether inhibition training reduces antisocial behaviour, but the signs are promising because of strong links between self-control and aggression.

Empathy Training

One of the hallmarks of an online abuser is a lack of empathy – a trait that is also shared by sexual and violent offenders. Strategies to enhance empathy in these more serious offender groups include things like taking the perspective of the victim, writing letters of apology, reading victim impact statements, viewing footage of victims talking about the offence, and group therapy with role-play. Although controlled trials of empathy training are lacking, this type of rehabilitation is theoretically very promising for treating online aggression.

Preventative measures

Can we stop online abuse before it happens? One approach may be to shape online environments in ways that encourage prosocial rather than antisocial behaviour. As we saw above, maintaining eye contact can reduce aggression, and simply presenting images of eyes can make people more generous and supportive of the public good. So could something as simple as placing more eyes on web pages temper our aggression?

Looking deeper, perhaps we should also be teaching children the importance of maintaining a tolerant moral compass even when their identity is masked and normal social cues are missing. Sooner or later, society must accept that many of today's children will grow up to have online identities that are every bit as real as their offline selves. Education at a young age on how to build an online identity without surrendering the morals we value offline could help eliminate the trolls and cyberbullies of the future.

Psychological interventions aren't a universal solution for online abuse, and using them doesn't sidestep the need to pursue technical, social and legal avenues. But one thing is for sure: keeping our dark passengers in the back seat will require everything psychological science can offer.

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