Put simply, disinhibition refers to the state in which behavioural decision-making is compromised. Hirsh explained that when the part of the brain that detects and receives “conflicting information” from your surroundings - known as the “Behavioural Inhibition System” (BIS) - is activated, it produces feelings of anxiety, which act as a regulating mechanism that helps a person choose between competing responses.
Hirsh offered a helpful example: “Let’s say you have a big test to study for, but then a friend calls and invites you to a party. Now you have two competing motives pushing you in different directions. If you didn’t have a BIS, you’d immediately go hang out with your friend.” In the absence of a properly functioning BIS, individuals act impulsively in choosing the most apparently desirable option or exhibiting exaggeratedly pro-social, or anti-social behavior.
Enter power, alcohol and anonymity. Hirsh explained, “We chose these three factors because on the surface they appear to have nothing to do with one another.” However, in the context of disinhibition, each of these factors has a powerful and often polarizing effect on human behavior. Social power can present individuals with opportunities for great wealth, achievement or control over others, while alcohol intoxication reduces social anxieties and can produce heightened compassion and affection, or elevated levels of aggression and volatility. Anonymity can similarly ease social anxieties by removing the element of accountability and dampening concerns about social desirability. This too, has double-edged social consequences, particularly in the context of chat rooms and cyberbullying.
Hirsh described disinhibition as having two formative roles. “One of the things that happens in a disinhibited state is that it increases the effects of socialization. Disinhibition both shapes and reveals a person.” While personality traits and cultural values interact with and influence behavior, in a disinhibited state, strong social norms prevail. “What ever is the most normative response in any situation becomes the most salient,” explained Hirsh.
What is the usefulness of the disinhibition model? Hirsh described the recent financial crisis as a potent example of when power can create anti-social behavior with hugely negative outcomes. “Looking at power and disinhibition can tell us more about what kind of cognitive biases are leading these people towards risk,” said Hirsh. “Awareness of these biases is a big step in restricting financial organizations,” he added. The online world is also a site of increased disinhibition through the use of chat-rooms and unregulated social networking. “[The Internet] is a new development that is rapidly changing opportunities for social engagement,” remarked Hirsh. “Online there is no reason to inhibit certain responses, and concerns about social evaluation are diminished.” This can produce remarkably positive opportunities for social support, as well as hostility and aggression through anonymous posting on public sites.
And, of course, alcohol is notorious for its effects as a “social lubricant.” Hirsh cautioned, “Alcohol does decrease social anxiety in the short term, but the downside is that you might not get what you’re hoping for, and there may be negative consequences.” While this may be obvious, the misuse of alcohol as self-medication and the deleterious effects of alcoholism remain a common problem.
The underlying goals of Hirsh’s research are to better understand the effects of anxiety and uncertainty on human behavior, and to “harness the good while constraining the bad” when it comes to disinhibition. Hirsh concluded, “It’s important to educate people and structure the environment so that the most desired responses are the most salient. We need to make it easy for people to do naturally what is most pro-social.”