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Self-Disclosure in Virtual Relationships

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Self-Disclosure in Virtual Relationships

Imagine your friend is telling you about a man she met online a few days ago. They haven’t met in person, but she tells you they have ‘talked about the meaning of life, love, and everything in-between’. As predicted by many psychologists, this is an example of how self-disclosure is greater in virtual relationships. So what are the characteristics of self-disclosure?

What is self-disclosure in virtual relationships?

Self-disclosure is sharing information. Many psychologists state that virtual relationships encourage greater and deeper sharing. Although influenced by many factors, the main reasons for this phenomenon are anonymity and a lack of commitment.

The anonymity of online relationships and the ability to leave the conversation at any time, alongside a lack of accountability are characteristics of self-disclosure that mean people feel more comfortable sharing information. According to the Social Penetration Theory, successful self-disclosure needs to be gradual and have a strong foundation of trust.

Reduced cues theory

In contrast, Sproull and Kessler (1986) suggested that we share less online due to a reduced amount of non-verbal cues such as body language, facial expressions, and tone of voice. According to Sproull and Kessler, this leads to deindividuation, where reduced cues and anonymity make people lower their standards of behaviour and have a reduced sense of individuality. Sharing less online leads to impersonal conversation and a reluctance to self-disclose.

An extreme example of deindividuation is catfishing; someone pretends to be someone else using an online profile. In this case, the individual’s lowered standard of behaviour is clear from their deception whilst their individuality is lost as they pretend to be someone else.

New cues?

However, some researchers suggest that instead of reduced cues, online relationships have different cues such as emojis, time taken to reply, tone of reply, etc.

Self-Disclosure in Virtual Relationships Connecting virtually StudySmarterConnecting virtually, Canva

The hyperpersonal model

Walher (1996, 2011) suggested the opposite of reduced cues theory, saying self-disclosure increased in online relationships. According to Walher, self-disclosure occurs quickly online due to anonymity, a lack of accountability, the ability to craft answers and your image, and the fact that you can leave at any point.

As we have previously discussed, self-disclosure is measured in-depth and breadth. Breadth refers to the amount/variety of information whilst depth refers to the personal nature of the information, eg, a ‘deep’ conversation might be talking about your childhood.

Cooper and Sportolari (1997) suggested that in online relationships increased self-disclosure, in both breadth and depth, leads to the ‘boom and bust’ phenomenon. This phenomenon describes what happens when potential partners self-disclose too fast without the proper grounding of trust needed to maintain the relationship. Therefore, their relationship’ busts’ and breaks down.

Self-Disclosure in Virtual Relationships Boom and bust phenomenon StudySmarterBoom and bust, Canva

Stranger phenomenon

The nature of virtual relationships has been likened to the stranger phenomenon by Rubin (1975). People are more likely to share details about themselves, especially personal details, with strangers because they will probably never see that person again. The consequences of sharing such personal information are virtually non-existent.

Judgment is lessened, and possible ramifications are mostly absent.

Evaluation of self-disclosure in virtual relationships

Bargh et al., 2002 conducted three experiments to build upon McKenna, Green and Gleason’s (2002) correlational study, which found those who expressed their ‘true selves’ on the internet were more likely to form close relationships online.

Using lab experiments, he found that whilst the concept of the ‘true self’ was more recognizable to undergraduates online; they were able to express this ‘true self’ better than in face-to-face interactions. Students were assigned a partner to interact with either face-to-face or online in the third experiment. Bargh et al. found that those who interacted online could better express their true selves to their partners.

Different cues: As previously discussed, the suggestion that there are reduced or no cues in online relationships is false. Today, cues can be expressed by emojis, voice notes (tone of voice), punctuation and time taken to reply, amongst other things.

The recent boom in online dating (25-29-year-olds are most likely to meet their significant other on a dating app) reflects the ability to communicate successfully online, disputing the suggestion that it is a deindividuated and cue-less form of communication.

Whitty and Johnson (2009 ) studied online communication and found that users are often direct, asking intimate and probing questions. This supports the hyperpersonal model, suggesting that self-disclosure happens faster in online relationships.

Relationships are rarely all online: it is flawed to assume that a relationship will only be online. Today, often people talk online in anticipation of an in-person date. Thus, theories of online communication are flawed as in-person interactions could influence online self-disclosure.

McKenna and Bargh (2000) found that relationships formed online were 70% likely to last more than two years. This percentage is higher than so-called ‘offline’ relationships, supporting the idea that greater self-disclosure and the absence of gates in online relationships can build stronger bonds.

Self-Disclosure in Virtual Relationships Virtual love StudySmarterVirtual love, Canva

Self-Disclosure in Virtual Relationships - key takeaways

  • Self-disclosure is sharing information.
  • Psychologists such as Walher (1996, 2011) and Cooper and Sportolari (1997) think that self-disclosure increases in online relationships.
  • Studies by McKenna and Bargh (2000), Whitty and Johnson (2009) support the theory of increased self-disclosure in online relationships.
  • In contrast, Sproull and Kessler (1986) suggest that online relationships have decreased communication due to the absence of non-verbal cues.
  • Negatives of investigating self-disclosure in online relationships are that relationships are rarely totally online, and cues may be different rather than absent.

Frequently Asked Questions about Self-Disclosure in Virtual Relationships

Sharing information about yourself online.

Psychologists Walher and Cooper and Sportolari think that it is due to anonymity, the ability to craft answers and the fact you can leave the communication at any point.

It leads to greater intimacy and a stronger relationship, according to Altman and Taylor, but too much too soon can lead a relationship to break down as the proper grounding of trust has not been established.

According to psychologists Walher and Cooper and Sportolari, anonymity, the ability to craft answers and the fact you can leave the communication at any point leads to self-disclosure online. 

Non-verbal cues are things we do not say that communicate our feelings such as body language, facial expressions, and tone of voice. 

Final Self-Disclosure in Virtual Relationships Quiz

Question

Define self-disclosure.


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Answer

Self-disclosure is sharing personal information with another person.

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Question

Why do some psychologists (Walher, 1996, 2011) theorise that self-disclosure is greater online?


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Answer

Because of the anonymity, lack of accountability and ability to leave at any time.

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Question

Who came up with the hyperpersonal model?


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Answer

Walher

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Question

Who theorised the ‘boom and bust’ phenomenon?


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Answer

Cooper and Sportolari

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Question

Give an example of a non-verbal cue.


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Answer

Tone of voice.

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Question

What is the reduced cues theory?

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Answer

Sproull and Kessler (1986) suggested that we share less online due to a reduced amount of non-verbal cues such as body language, facial expressions, and tone of voice. According to them, this leads to deindividuation, where reduced cues and anonymity makes people lower their standards of behaviour and have a reduced sense of individuality.

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Question

What is a counterpoint to reduced cues theory?


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Answer

We may not simply lack cues but have different cues in online relationships such as emojis and time taken to reply.

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Question

What causes the ‘boom and bust’ phenomenon, according to Cooper and Sportrolari?

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Answer

Increased breadth of self-disclosure causes the 'boom and bust' phenomenon. 

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Question

According to Walher’s hyperpersonal model, why does self-disclosure increase in online relationships?

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Answer

Walher states that self-disclosure occurs quickly online due to anonymity, the ability to craft answers and your image, a lack of accountability and the fact that you can leave at any point.

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Question

Whose correlation study did Bargh et al. (2002) build upon to show that online relationships lead to greater self-disclosure?

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Answer

McKenna, Green and Gleason's (2002)

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Question

Who studied online communication and found that users are often direct, asking intimate and probing questions?


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Answer

Whitty and Johnson (2009)

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Question

Give one weakness of studying self-disclosure in online relationships.


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Answer

One problem with studying online self-disclosure is that relationships rarely form all online or all offline today. This means that it is very rare that we can study ‘online relationships’ or ‘offline relationships’.

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Question

What did Bargh et al. (2002) find?

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Answer

Bargh et al. found that those who interacted online were better able to express their true selves to their partners.

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Question

What is deindividuation?

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Answer

Deindividuation is when reduced cues and anonymity makes people lower their standards of behaviour and have a reduced sense of individuality.

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Question

What percentage of online relationships did McKenna and Bargh (2000) find lasted more than two years?


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Answer

70%

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