Who "Spills Their Guts" Online?
Believe it or not, people who are most likely to keep things private offline are actually most likely to spill it online. What makes someone more likely to share online? And does this sharing relate to openness to forming relationships online?
We conducted a study to see whether the answers to these questions were related to personality traits. First, to measure people’s willingness to share private information, we told our community sample participants to imagine that they are chatting with someone online whom they’ve spoken to a few times, feel positive about, but have never met face-to-face. The instruction continued: “How would you answer the following questions if this person asked you?”
- Tell me about a time you were embarrassed.
- What is something you have lied about?
- What is something surprising about you that maybe some of your closest friends would not even know?
Participants then rated how embarrassed they were, how serious the lie was, and how private the something surprising was. Responses on the first question included things like slips and falls or losing control over bodily functions in front of others. In terms of lies, responses ranged from lying about one’s weight, to lying about being pregnant, one’s sexual orientation, or one’s relationship status. Finally, responses on the final question ranged from hiding one’s “true self” to traumatic childhood events. So who shared these deep, dark, aspects of themselves online?
Who Shares More Online and Why?
Interestingly, it was people who do not share much in offline interactions, who disclosed more online in our study. It is easier to control the impression you give off online, including self-presentations that are less than honest. Lying online is easier than in person. This ease can sometimes serve as an invitation for those prone to lying to overshare both truths and fictions about themselves.
This is the case for those high in what we in psychology refer to as the “Dark Triad” of personality. The “Dark Triad” involves three negative traits:
- Narcissism (being manipulative and callous),
- Machiavellianism (being cynical and immoral), and
- Psychopathy (issues with emotional and self-control).
People who are high on these traits told more serious lies during our self-disclosure task.
What About Forming Relationships Online?
We also questioned, then, whether people who shared more online were making online friends. After all, intimacy-building through self-disclosure is a key part of relationship-building. Past research has shown that aspects of the online environment, such as the removal of geographical divides and feeling anonymous, can even benefit relationship formation and further promote feelings of intimacy with others.
We also measured people’s tendencies toward self-inflation and bragging, and found that people who are high on that, and high on the “Dark Triad,” enjoy engaging in online relationships with others. This may go back to the fact that manipulating one’s impression is easier to do online than in person. So if those who like to brag, such as narcissists, love it when others see them as awesome, the online environment is just right for them to sell this ideal version of themselves.
The Sum of It
The findings overall suggest that people who are braggarts, concealers, narcissists, and Machiavellian are less likely to exercise a great deal of caution when communicating with others online. But they aren’t necessarily looking for a relationship when doing so. So although someone sharing secrets with us may lead us to feel a sense of intimacy, caution is wise when chatting online with new people. After all, as our results show, what is shared may just be a bunch of lies.
For Further Reading
D’Agata, M. T., Kwantes, P. J., Holden, R. R. (2021). Psychological factors related to self-disclosure and relationship formation in the online environment. Personal Relationships, 28(2), 230-250. https://doi.org/10.1111/pere.12361
McKenna, K. Y., Green, A. S., & Gleason, M. E. (2002). Relationship formation on the internet: What’s the big attraction? Journal of Social Issues, 58(1), 9-31. https://doi.org/10.1111/1540-4560.00246
Madeleine D’Agata is a Defence Scientist for Defence Research and Development Canada, whose research focuses on resilience in the areas of online behavior as well as mental health.