Who would have thought that you can feel a real and important connection with someone you’ve never met in the flesh?
Research is most exciting when it throws up something contrary to popular belief. My field, psychology, has a reputation for finding things that confirm what we already know about ourselves – behaviour like preferring to hang out with people who are like us, or trusting someone we believe is credible – and maybe that’s why people like it.
But when science comes out with something unexpected, like the famous finding that logical and respectable people will do terrible things to other humans when in the presence of a commanding authority, that’s when things get interesting.
The internet is full of these funny contradictions. For example, who would have thought that you can feel a real and important connection with someone you’ve never met in the flesh?
Many people believe that the internet is a paradox, as Robert Kraut and his colleagues found in 1998 in their paper: ‘Internet paradox: a social technology that reduces social involvement and psychological well being’. But it’s not.
I know this from the opposite effects described by the 12 years of research that followed, including from Kraut and his colleagues in a later study published in 2002. But as we know from the bleeding obvious (and lots of psychology studies), we would rather hear something that confirms what we believe.
Now, here we are in the midst of a remarkable moment in internet history, as more people than ever grapple with truly living online. As I’ve said in the past, this enforced digital experiment is exposing the boundaries of what modern tech is able to offer human interaction, and where it fails.
After such a long time of being mediated, we are hungry for face-to-face contact. We also prefer research that reminds us how essential it is in social involvement and psychological wellbeing. Well, I’m going to be contradictory here.
In a recent issue of the Journal Of Computer-Mediated Communication, an international team of scientists wanted to find out what helped people cope during stressful situations: face-to-face or online interactions.