The 5 Weirdest Ways the Modern World Changed Human Behavior
Almost every major advancement in human society has been met with panicked people insisting it will turn the future into an unrecognizable hellscape. But when we say that the Internet is fundamentally changing how humans behave, we're not demanding somebody go take an ax and hack through the cables before it's too late.
None of this stuff is going to ruin the world. But it is weird as hell.
The Internet Is Training Your Eyes to Move in Certain Patterns
There are some who argue that, thanks to the Internet, social media, and text speak, we are moving toward a post-literate society. When a hit "article" on big sites like BuzzFeed consists of a series of GIFs and image macros made by other people and tied together with 100 words of sentence fragments, that argument is difficult to rebut. And according to research conducted by both Nielsen Norman Group and Mediative, this type of content is changing the way we read.
For as long as large blocks of text have existed, your eyeballs have been trained to suck in the information by quickly hopping horizontally from one word to the next, then zipping back to the start of the next line, like so:
Assuming your language reads left-to-right, obviously
... and on and on steadily down the page, until you get bored or decide you've pretty much gotten the gist. But this was back in the days when you were reading a single book or a newspaper and your only choice was to either steadily plow through it, or stare quietly at the wall. Today, your brain is a battered refugee huddled in the middle of a howling typhoon of web content. You can't hope to read it all, or even skim it. So, your eyes have adapted. NNG refers to it as the F-Shaped Pattern, while Mediative calls it the Golden Triangle, but what they both boil down to is that when screen reading (i.e., reading on Internet-connected computer screens, smartphones, e-book readers, etc.), our eyes make a triangle or F-shape down the page:
According to that image, you're not reading this caption. So, the government is giant crabs,
and the moon landing was a cartoon.
According to this theory, you've already stopped paying attention to any of the crazy language shapes we're typing, but we'll explain what's going on up there anyway: Basically, when we start to read a webpage, we view the first couple lines in full, giving them our complete attention and reading them in their entirety. However, as we begin to work our way down the page, we start reading less and less of each line until we finally get to the bottom, at which point we're basically reading nothing at all. It's the whole reason the TL;DR tag exists -- if a piece of content or information is longer than a few lines, most will not read it.
While the effect is strongest when scanning Google search results, NNG found that it's still present when reading everything from product pages on Amazon to news articles to delightful informative comedy pieces on your favorite website.
Just don't put sunglasses on when you're reading us.
The effect was first discovered back in 2005, which has given savvy Internet marketers ample time to capitalize on the decaying orbit of our reading patterns by making sure premium content is displayed within the Golden Triangle, which is beginning to sound less like a scientific phenomenon and more like the tarp shielding the space of carpet between R. Kelly's bed and DVD player. But human progress doesn't hold itself captive to the whims of marketing experts -- according to a recent eye-tracking study, it seems that the F-Shaped Pattern/Golden Triangle is evolving. Now our reading habits look more like this:
This might also just be a person tea-bagging someone wearing infrared goggles.
Basically, the diagram of our literacy looks like a pear-shaped Grinch penis and/or Predator masturbating.
Our Real-Life Behavior Changes According to How Attractive Our Online Avatar Is
One of the most stressful moments of any online role-playing game is the character-creation screen, because we can easily spend just as many hours crafting the perfect fanciful alter-ego as we can playing the game itself. Choosing between a wood elf, a wood elf with large breasts, a barbarian, or a barbarian with large breasts is an array of options amounting to a type of purgatory for the indecisive. However, it turns out that all that time and anxiety we pour into selecting our avatars is actually way more important than anyone had any right to reasonably expect.
Specifically, the constructed identities we use for all of our online interactions, be they gaming or ranting to strangers on message boards about gaming, are responsible for a phenomenon called the Proteus Effect, which is a fancy name for describing how we gradually begin to act like our online selves in our real-world lives.
Unrelated photo of the default Cracked avatar.
In one experiment, Stanford researchers assigned volunteers either an attractive or an unattractive character in Second Life, otherwise known as "that game John Cusack's nephew is playing in Hot Tub Time Machine." Participants with attractive avatars behaved more confidently in their interactions with other players than the participants who were forced to pilot hideous mutants, suggesting that simply having an "attractive" polygonal mask to hide behind had a tangible effect on their behavior. Similarly, people who were given taller avatars behaved more aggressively and confidently in subsequent real-world negotiation tasks. Basically, if your avatar is a sculpted Adonis, you're going to start behaving like Gordon Gekko.
In a follow-up study, researchers took it a step further: After playing the game, volunteers were asked to choose dates out of a pool of potential mates of varying physical attractiveness. People who had been controlling fitness model avatars in-game tended to pick better-looking dates because, according to one researcher, "they thought they had a shot," regardless of how attractive they were in real life. Their video game confidence had bled out into the real world like some kind of reverse-Tron, only without a Benjamin-Buttoned Jeff Bridges.
"This could be ahhh lot more, uh, uh, uh, complex. I mean, it's not just, it might not
be just such a simple ... uh, you know?"
And no, the effect isn't always positive. In another experiment, a group of female volunteers were assigned highly sexualized avatars and, again, subsequently told to go forth and interact with the non-pixelated populace. Despite what you'd expect (given the results of the previous studies), this time there was no reported difference in in-game behavior. However, after the study was completed, the volunteers all reported being more aware of their body image, and not in a good way -- in cases where the avatars were given the actual faces of the volunteers, the volunteers began to express opinions about themselves on par with rape myth acceptance, which refers to the idea female victims are often to blame. You may recognize this as the worst possible outcome for playing a video game outside of WarGames.
Internet Anonymity Can Actually Make People Cooperate Better
As cliche as it is to say that Internet anonymity makes people act like raging pissmonsters, it's true that all it takes to unleash a person's inner psychopath is a disposable email address and an overinflated sense of self-righteousness. It makes perfect sense -- remove all social consequences of rudeness or cruelty, dehumanize the target by reducing them to a username and avatar, and all bets are off. But is it possible that this new form of human communication could actually help, in some cases?
How else could people reveal the government corruption behind 9-11/Benghazi/fluoride/phantom
cellphone vibrations without the cloak of anonymity?
Yep, and it's actually for the same reasons. They call it the "online disinhibition effect" and it means that the same protection from consequence that makes us feel comfortable calling someone a shitlord for not liking the same games we do also makes us more effective when we're using those powers for good. Think about how awkward and horrible it is to hold a face-to-face intervention for an addict friend. Now think about how much easier it is to send an anonymous "This needs to be said, because I think the meth is killing you" email. Dropping our "filter" doesn't automatically mean unleashing a torrent of death threats.
So, it's been found that people anonymously participating in online workshops demonstrate enhanced problem-solving skills compared to their not-anonymous colleagues, as well as display a willingness to ask more questions. In both cases, it's like how you were unwilling to raise your hand during classes: The risk of getting laughed at for asking a stupid question or answering incorrectly isn't there -- after all, no one knows who you are.
"You really took 'there are no stupid questions' to heart, didn't you?"
Additionally, while you might associate anonymity with not giving a single shit about others, it turns out that anonymity is a great way of developing strong online communities who, you know, actually give a shit. As no one knows who anyone is, there's less pressure to stand out from the crowd and less tendency to be loyal to individuals at the expense of the group. In other words, instead of flocking around the popular kids, everyone flocks around the idea of the group and advancing the group's goals.
Yeah, there's a reason members of Anonymous can be almost cult-like in their devotion, right down to communication with each other almost entirely in memes and references no outsider would comprehend.
Above: Went to /b/, screencapped literally the first post we saw.
There is a lot of power and freedom in surrendering your individuality. And like any power, it's all about how you choose to use it.
We're Losing Our Ability to Talk Face-to-Face
Through media such as emails, texts, tweets, and dick pics, technology has simultaneously made it easier than ever before for people to communicate with each other and possible to go your entire life without ever having to physically interact with another human being. And with each passing generation, our reliance on nonverbal communication is growing ever stronger -- for evidence, just stroll by your nearest high school and notice how each student has perfected a smartphone Spider-Sense that allows them to avoid tripping over fire hydrants, careening down escalators, or rambling in front of transit buses while never once removing their gaze from their mobile device.
While some might argue that this is no more harmful than raising an entire generation on an intravenous feed of popular culture, some psychologists say we're creating a "distancing phenomena" -- basically, by never communicating face-to-face (and by doing things like giving our children iPads to pacify them in any public situation rather than letting them see how to be a person among other people), we're dampening our ability to do so.
"Next time you get mad at each other, why don't you try talking about it instead of
passive-aggressively messing up each other's Netflix recommendations?"
To test out just how much of an effect incessant screen-time has on our children, UCLA scientists stranded two groups of sixth-graders in the woods and forced them to camp out for a week. One group was free to continue using their Apple personal servants to their hearts' content, while the second was forced to step off the grid and live like a bunch of savages (read: 12-year-olds from 1999). After just five days, researchers found that the Internet-deprived group was significantly better able to recognize nonverbal communication such as "facial expression, eye contact, tone of voice, and body language" than the group that had remained glued to their screens. The recovery might have been quick, but we're only adding to the number of screens we fasten to our bodies every day.
"Basically, I want you to graft it to my crotch, like in the drawing, so I'm always ready to dick pic."
To get an idea of what this implies, just think about how much of our day-to-day communication depends on nonverbal cues -- how much disappointment your mom can convey with the left corner of her mouth or how much sex your partner can tell you you're not having with the tiniest flick of an eyebrow at your carefully honed Borat impression. You didn't come out of the womb knowing any of that; you had to learn it. And all of our cultural norms rely on it -- a good partner/spouse is one who knows what you need without making you come out and say it. This is why life can be so hard on kids with Asperger's Syndrome -- we make no allowances for people who fail to read body language.
"You understand only 99 percent of the unwritten rules for social interaction, FREAK!"
Look, we're not sounding the alarm about some kind of apocalypse full of antisocial replicants. But it would be much weirder to insist that drastically reducing the amount of face-to-face interaction in a human life will have no effect at all. If nothing else, lack of practice at a task makes you more anxious when you're forced to do it. So when you hear that social anxiety is spiking among teens, it makes perfect sense.
Yet, at the same time ...
We're Developing a Crippling Overdependence on Social Interaction
Considering our now-constant connection to the Internet, it's no surprise that people can get a little twitchy when they find themselves suddenly deprived of a stable signal. However, if temporary downtime leaves you less "twitchy" and more "cloaked in a fog of existential despair," you might be suffering from FoMO, the spectacularly irritating acronym we've assigned to the very real condition known as "Fear of Missing Out."
Just a decade ago, this traditionally took the form of nagging our friends on Friday night to call us the instant any remotely interesting activity took shape, but nowadays it more commonly takes the form of missing half of the movie/conversation/funeral you're participating in because you've got one eye constantly focused on your phone, shuffling between Facebook, Twitter, and ... um, Ello, we guess? Is that still a thing?
Really, we were all disappointed that it isn't Facebook written with a Cockney accent.
As the name suggests, FoMO is a form of social anxiety that people -- most strongly those who tend to feel unloved or without respect -- experience when they're unable to interact with their online social circles. Even though on paper that sounds about as serious as the air-conditioning breaking in your diamond chariot, apparently it can become pretty goddamn debilitating for those who suffer from it. For instance, researchers have found that restricting people from sharing or interacting on Facebook is capable of causing some to question the very meaningfulness of their existence. We've gotten used to quantifying our personal stock by the amount of social media interactions we're involved in -- when you take away the primary means by which most people communicate with their friends and loved ones, it literally makes a person feel like they don't exist.
"I tweet, therefore I am."
In another study, researchers falsely manipulated the amount of likes and comments that participants' statuses received. As you may have guessed, those who received a high number of each felt absolutely glorious, like a winged Nicolas Cage. However, those who received few to zero likes and comments described feelings of "invisibility," which is a textbook symptom of people with anxiety disorders.
Like a regular Nicolas Cage.
That latter test might seem unnecessarily cruel, like the scientific equivalent of stuffing a nerdy kid into a locker, but it was meant to demonstrate the underlying belief of FoMO: that our friends are having more exciting and socially rewarding experiences than we are (likes and comments being the perfect indicator of such) and, moreover, that the way we're spending our time is being negatively judged as boring or worthless. All things considered, it was easier to live with the consequences of not attending a certain social event back in the olden days, when there wouldn't be a metric shit-ton of photos exploding all over your eyeballs the very next morning to show how unbelievably awesome it was and what a friendless tool you are for not being invited.
Not so, now -- the trifecta of Instagram, Facebook, and Twitter makes sure you know exactly what you're missing out on (or, more importantly, what you perceive to be missing out on) every time people in your social circle hang out without you. We're becoming catastrophically dependent on social acceptance, and for people who had a(n un)healthy amount of social anxiety to begin with, this is really bad news. Now, like this article on Facebook. Please.
They won't release us until you do, and we're almost out of air.
When Adam isn't exploring the mysteries of the Internet, he can be contacted at email@example.com. Fuel Sam Jackson's dreams of castle ownership at Facebook and Twitter, and check out his friend's blog .
For more reasons to burn all of social media, check out 6 Scientific Reasons Social Networks Are Bad for Society and 6 Things Social Networking Sites Need to Stop Doing.
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