Increased virtualisation may be very bad for ethics

The verdict is out: virtualisation may be very bad for ethics

Most of us have adopted a more virtual lifestyle since the COVID pandemic. Many organisations have now brought in more relaxed work-from-home policies with a much larger percentage of employees now doing some or most of their work through virtual means. The use of email and virtual communications platforms such as Zoom and Teams have skyrocketed and are now one of the primary communications mechanisms in many organisations. But is this increased virtualisation (the increased adoption of abstract virtual information technology processes to replace real-world activities) good for us? How do these mechanisms affect personal and group ethics? Professor Delroy Paulhus, a Canadian psychologist and the foremost expert on the Dark Tetrad, has investigated the expression of psychopathy, Machiavellianism, narcissism, and sadism in a virtual world, and the results should worry all of us deeply.

We all have dark traits

Paulhus and his colleagues have investigated dark personality traits, namely psychopathy (a lack of empathy and increased propensity for anti-social predatory behaviour and poor impulse control), Machiavellianism (manipulativeness, callousness, and indifference to morality), narcissism (inflated pride, egotism, dominance, and self-importance), and sadism (a propensity to enjoy cruelty and inflicting pain and suffering on others), for over 20 years. Their research primarily focused on ‘normal’ personality (i.e., subclinical traits), demonstrates that all of us have a propensity for the dark traits of personality to some greater or lesser degree. We all have lapses in our empathy, engage in impulsive and manipulative behaviour, overinflate our self-worth, and enjoy, to some degree, the misfortunes of others (there is even a word for this called ‘schadenfreude’). If you disagree with this, think back to a point where you hated or loathed someone who wronged you.

Consider that the most popular television series of all time is Game of Thrones. Hyperviolence, Machiavellianism, narcissism, and sadism are the core drawing cards of this series. We enjoy violent sports and cheer when our team hurts the other team. However, for many of us, there are social processes that limit this indulgent dark behaviour.

Social feedback mechanisms keep us in check

There are consequences in society to unchecked dark traits. These consequences are often social in nature and are obtained directly from those we may manipulate, dominate, hurt, or use as a means to an end. It is more difficult to engage in apathetic or hurtful behaviour towards someone in the same room as you. This is partly because there are social consequences to engaging in these dark traits. It is easier to pick a fight online than in person.

We know, for example, that people who are unusually high in the dark tetrad traits struggle to form long-lasting relationships and are eventually caught out by the social groups in which they operate. This can often also be career-limiting for the individual. The social consequences of unchecked dark traits can be dire. Losing a job, destruction of a career, social rejection and isolation, and in extreme cases criminal prosecution. This is not even taking into account the negative influence these traits have on organisational mechanisms and social cohesion. In other words, being in a face-to-face environment is a powerful social feedback mechanism that keeps our dark traits in check. There are social consequences to being unethical or immoral in person.

Social desirability may actually be a good thing

We all act in socially desirable ways. We are primed to live and work in groups. It is therefore vital for us to ensure that the group likes us. We are a gregarious species after all. Social rejection from our social groups is generally extremely disadvantageous both personally and professionally. In our prehistoric past, rejection from your social group could mean certain death. Many of us are still primed by social anxiety for this reason. For example, the most statistically common phobia is public speaking. Our throats go dry and our hands sweat. We are generally terrified of speaking in front of large groups of people. Perhaps this visceral reaction has something to do with the omnipresent fear that they (the group) may not like what we have to say. Or at worst, the group may reject us.

All people, therefore, engage in some form of socially desirable behaviour in public. We could say that we tend to engage our ‘conventional’ morality in society. We may indicate that we care deeply about a group or individual we do not really care about. We may say nice things about a person even when we deeply dislike them. We use euphemisms, avoid conflict, engage in tactful responses, and claim to believe the same things our social group believes (even when we do not). 

All these behaviours are constructed to get the group to accept us. Being in a social group has many advantages. Having others on your side, or there to assist you, is important. We need to leverage our social capital for our well-being and survival. 

Of course, social desirability may be viewed as a form of dishonesty. That someone who engages in socially desirable ways is acting in a manipulating or conniving manner. This is true. However social feedback and a susceptibility to being liked by our social groups form part of a very important social feedback mechanism that stops us from crossing the line. It is the very thing that places limits on our dark traits. Consider for example, that there is evidence of well-socialised psychopaths that have never broken a law and are considered rewarding to work with in their organisations. 

Ask yourself, how socially desirable have you been when going for a job interview, meeting your partner’s parents, or being introduced to new people socially?

Virtualisation lowers social desirability and empathy

Virtualisation has had a massive impact on our social feedback mechanisms. Paulhus in a recent interview about his work on social media and the dark traits indicated that: “…in a way you are getting closer to how people are ‘really’ like…” when they have the cushion of indirect social experiences through virtualisation. 

It is a similar mechanism to road rage. When you are separated from others through a buffer (a car, virtualisation) you tend to engage in less socially desirable behaviour and the incidences of dark traits tend to increase. In fact, in studies on online bullying and ‘trolling’ behaviours, Paulhus and colleagues found that virtualisation may in fact enable psychopathy, Machiavellianism, narcissism and sadism. This brings us to an interesting and popular internet phenomenon called “doing it for the lulz”. 

“Doing it for the lulz” is a phrase often used to describe engaging in activities or behaviours purely for the sake of amusement, without any deeper purpose or intention. It can refer to engaging in pranks, trolling, or other forms of online mischief, often with the goal of eliciting a reaction from others. This behaviour is especially enjoyable to those who engage in it, and it is done simply for the laughs in a sadistic manner. 

This type of behaviour has exponentially increased with the advent of virtualisation both personally and in the work context. People are simply getting less direct social feedback from their peers, feel less compelled to act in socially desirable ways, and have less empathy for others. There is also a substantial decrease in direct role-modelling. The additional safety that an online virtual platform provides may also increase the frequency of unwanted dark traits being expressed. 

Numerous studies have shown that dark traits share one thing in common, a lack of empathy. Our empathy is not a linear force. It changes based on your context. You are more likely to feel empathy for someone when you are in their physical presence than if they are presented virtually. Empathy is dynamic. Virtualisation may be eroding this vital moral pillar and we may not be ready for the consequences on both a personal and professional level. 

Perhaps then, a return to the office is a good thing. Many individuals are unhappy that their organisations are pushing for a return to face-to-face work. But, if you are thoughtful and consider the possible negative outcomes of virtualisation, perhaps a return to work in some form is not such a bad thing. Perhaps it may even be a necessity to retain our prosocial morality. 

About the author: Dr Paul Vorster is a Senior Research Specialist at The Ethics Institute.