Scientists Discover the Greater Internet Fuckwad Theory

In November I blogged about the Greater Internet Fuckwad Theory (GIFT), the elegant equation that explains the morass of ad hominem drivel you can find in comment threads throughout the internet. The theory was ginned up by the video game … Read More

By / March 15, 2007

In November I blogged about the Greater Internet Fuckwad Theory (GIFT), the elegant equation that explains the morass of ad hominem drivel you can find in comment threads throughout the internet. The theory was ginned up by the video game blog Penny Arcade, and it posits that when you take a normal person, stick him at a computer, and offer him the anonymity and audience provided by an internet comment thread, that person is very likely to call you a “shitcock.” They act like a fuckwad.

Finally, the science of the human mind is catching up to the theorists at Penny Arcade.

According to Daniel Goleman, author of Social Intelligence: The New Science of Social Relationships, psychologists have described an “online disinhibition effect,” and it goes like this: “several psychological factors lead to online disinhibition: the anonymity of a Web pseudonym; invisibility to others; the time lag between sending an e-mail message and getting feedback; the exaggerated sense of self from being alone; and the lack of any online authority figure.”

Now anyone can spot this as the GIFT, and if Penny Arcade didn’t get a citation in that paper, that’s criminal. Plus, since Penny Arcade described the phenomenon first, their own name for it should get precedence. No one should be allowed to call it the Online Disinhibition Effect. It’s the GIFT.

Goleman says workers in the field of “social neuroscience” have found that active internet fuckwads show decreased activity in a part of the brain called the orbitofrontal cortex, which Goleman describes as “a center for empathy.”

I must confess that when I took neurology during my abortive medical school experience, the orbitofrontal cortex was never described to me as anything like a “center for empathy.” It was, though, associated with the sad, oft-told tale of Mr. Phineas Gage, a railroad foreman who blew a hole in his head with a tamping
iron. Until then, the story went, Gage had been the best sort of nineteenth century man’s man: modest in appetite, judicious in planning, robust in ambition, all that great stuff. But after he blew out a chunk of his frontal lobes he suddenly became an impulsive, sluggardly ne’er do well.

Obliterated orbitofrontal cortices (we’ve each got two, one in each hemisphere) were, I was told, a factor in the poor Mr. Gage’s predicament, because the area is associated with the ability to defer gratification, assess risks and rewards, monitor one’s own adherence to social protocols, and other such things.

But I suppose this still works as an explanation for the GIFT…in our day-to-day lives, each of us is the very model of propriety, a conscientious observer of social decorum, a pre-accident Phineas Gage. But when we sit down at our computer and start trawling the internet, we become rather like the post-accident Gage. We act a bit as if we’d just blasted out part of our cerebral cortex.

So how much can we do about this? Could Phineas Gage have decided to act as though he still had his intact brain? Can an internet fuckwad decide to push out the words “I disagree with your opinion” when a sluggish orbitofrontal cortex leaves them wanting to type in all-caps that you’re a filthy shitcock?

Some people find these sorts of questions terribly unnerving. The Fuckwad Theory itself is fine, because we’re all used to the idea that people are shaped by their environment. That notion is the core of what evolutionary psychologist John Tooby describes as “The Standard Social Science Model,” and we’ve all been influenced by it. So explaining the social circumstances in which an otherwise decent person will call you a shitcock is no problem.

But once you start talking about the neuroscience that underlies the GIFT, you invoke what philosopher Daniel Dennett calls “The Creeping Spectre of Exculpation.” The more we learn about the neurobiology of behavior, the more we seem to be absolving people of responsibility for their misbehavior. If we used to say “Hate the sin, not the sinner,” the 21st century variant may be in the spirit of “hate the orbitofrontal cortex, not the fuckwad.”

A closely related concern is that free will seems to be going out the window. Some scientists deny this is the case: Steven Pinker, of whom I’m usually a shameless and slavish admirer, offers some dubious waffle about science and ethics being two separate, self-contained systems, the former operating from the assumption that all behavior can be explained without reference to magical first causes such as “free will,” and the latter assuming that we’re free to make good decisions (choosing to explain why we disagree with someone's analysis) or bad decisions (choosing to call them a shitcock).

But allow me to be groan-inducingly pretentious: I simply can’t shake the feeling that we need to do a Straussian reading of Steven Pinker here. He seems quite anxious that fields such as evolutionary psychology (or social neuroscience) will be subjected to implacable, grant-jeopordizing, research-complicating anger if they appear to be running roughshod over the cherished verities of the rabble. Behind his solemn discussions of free will as an entirely legitimate premise for the ethically-minded, I can’t help but read: “There is such a thing as objective truth; science is the process by which we identify that truth; and mystical jibber-jabber about ex nihilo first causes such as 'free will' is simply incompatible with science. But that doesn’t mean you can’t believe it, if you’re the kind of person who likes to believe in made-up things.”

My understanding is that in a forthcoming book Jewcy contributor and neuroscience PhD candidate Sam Harris will say all this explicitly, rather than in coded language. I expect that Sam would take his characteristically cantankerous tack, ramming down our throats the contention that free will is merely another of our pitiable superstitions, like belief in God.

It’s all very fascinating, but I think we can reserve the right to treat a fuckwad as a fuckwad no matter how much we learn about what’s taking place in their cerebral cortex. If you can’t stop calling people shitcocks, we may block your IP, and your unfree will and understimulated orbitofrontal cortices can go jump in a lake.

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