Stop Reading Now Before We Agree!

As part of my fumbling entry into the world of blogging, I have been reading a number of other blogs, including some of the lofty ones that are nice enough to pick up RBC postings from time to time. In this process, I have come across a particular type of angry comment on lofty blogs that is intriguing to try to explain.

It is not hard to explain why angry comments appear from readers who disagree with the blogger’s opinion on some controversial issue, but I am puzzling over the phenomenon of the commenter who blasts a blogger who clearly agrees with him (it’s almost always a him). The exchange typically runs something like this.

Famous blogger writes: I love apple pie. But I think cherry pie is great also.

Commenter: I hate apple pie! How dare you not mention cherry pie! Cherry pie is way better than apple pie!

What seems to have happened in a non-negligible number of cases is that someone has read a blog entry only far enough to identify a point of possible disagreement, and then stopped reading to post an angry rebuttal. This is hard to explain in that, if one is reading a lofty blog with a large following, it would normally be satisfying to find out that the lofty blogger shared one’s views, and that prospect might lead one to read a few more sentences to learn that in fact, the lofty one agrees rather than disagrees with you.

It may be that there is a population that reads big time blogs for the purpose of disagreeing (even with those bloggers with whom they actually agree), but then one has to ask why, what reinforces this behavior? Why would a person put effort into something of this sort, and endure the negative emotions of anger and upset involved?

One possibility is that the emotions are not experienced as negative subjectively by the commenter, even though they are negative from a health viewpoint (repeated rages causes the adrenal glands to swing into action, causing wear and tear on the heart and other organs). Another is that some people come to the web with pre-existent free floating anger and are looking for an object upon which to fix their rage because it gives some sense of control (But then I think, that can’t be right because wouldn’t it be more satisfying to fix that rage on a genuine enemy rather than a friend, so to speak).

This phenomenon seems to fly in the face of much of what is said about the web and modern media generally: Everyone just reads things they already agree with, they are looking for reinforcement of their pre-existing views. That analysis has a lot of power, but it doesn’t account for the man who is angry at the authority figure with whom he is in violent agreement.

Author: Keith Humphreys

Keith Humphreys is the Esther Ting Memorial Professor of Psychiatry at Stanford University and an Honorary Professor of Psychiatry at Kings College London. His research, teaching and writing have focused on addictive disorders, self-help organizations (e.g., breast cancer support groups, Alcoholics Anonymous), evaluation research methods, and public policy related to health care, mental illness, veterans, drugs, crime and correctional systems. Professor Humphreys' over 300 scholarly articles, monographs and books have been cited over thirteen thousand times by scientific colleagues. He is a regular contributor to Washington Post and has also written for the New York Times, Wall Street Journal, Washington Monthly, San Francisco Chronicle, The Guardian (UK), The Telegraph (UK), Times Higher Education (UK), Crossbow (UK) and other media outlets.

10 thoughts on “Stop Reading Now Before We Agree!”

  1. The psycho-social and emotional dynamics are certainly interesting to speculate upon — they are, no doubt, various and, in some cases, subtle and, perhaps, conflicted and complex. I'm actually surprised, though, that anyone, who has had the experience of lecturing, followed by the giving and grading of a quiz on the lecture, would be the least bit surprised by what appears in comments.

    I wouldn't completely discount as an important factor, serious problems of reading comprehension, ranging from problems of visual acuity or something like dyslexia, to cultural problems of misunderstood jargon and implicit frames of reference. The commenter might skim the piece, and miss key words. The blogger's cherry pie might not be the commenter's cherry pie; they might not even have a genuinely shared idea of "pie" or "cherry".

    Since the days of usenet, the phenomenon of the frequent commenter slipping into some kind of permanent rant-mode has been well-known, if not well-understood. Many have thought that the silence of the written word — the lack of auditory and visual cues beyond punctuation and using font changes for emphasis — contributes to the difficulty of coordinating and modulating, on multiple levels, the mutual understanding, tone, etc. of the primary writer and the commenters. The often great difficulty attendant on trying to express sarcasm, and have sarcasm understood as such, can be cited as illustration.

    It is too little appreciated, I think, that most rhetorical argument is about one-part logical reasoning, one-part marshalling of evidence, and eight parts hypnotic trance induction followed by suggestion and emotional-association. One reasonable hypothesis about the expression of anger is that it is an instinctive attempt to break the trance.

    Another idea might be that the anger is employed to trump another, unexpressed emotion. People often use anger to trump shame. Anger is more surely transitory than shame, as well as less painful, so this strategy of emotional management passes the cost-benefit test.

    For the couch potato, a little adrenal surge might be a positive thing, on balance. Ah, the joys of an interactive medium.

  2. I have no idea whether this is true or not, but perhaps some of it is people want to feel they are NOT reading blogs they agree with in search of evidence for their preexisting views, and so make up things to disagree about?

  3. Why would a person put effort into something of this sort, and endure the negative emotions of anger and upset involved?

    You're making an assumption here that may not always be correct. There isn't necessarily always emotional upset behind a comment expressing strong disagreement (including disagreement stemming from lack of reading comprehension). Strong disagreement forcefully expressed often reads as anger, but imagining the words as spittle-flecked may be an illusion. Conversely, disagreement expressed in a calm, measured tone may hide seething fury. Sometimes there's no mistaking emotional upset, but much of the time it's a mug's game to try to divine someone's emotional state from what they write in a comment.

  4. Elizabeth D:

    Yours is the most interesting speculation I have heard about this. There is a large social psychology literature on reactance, meaning behaviors that people do to tell themselves they are not being controlled. One could also imagine this has to do with identity, i.e., I am not one of those drones who seeks confirmation….here watch me prove it. That latter seems particularly possible in that it is an intrapsychic payoff. From a social level the behavior doesn't I assume pay off because when the rest of us read comments such as this our reaction is to think "Wow, that person can't even read what they are commenting on" — no reinforcement there.

  5. People feel weak for a whole list of reasons; anger makes people feel strong.

    A person may be more likely to vent anger toward someone with whom there is agreement, because it feels safer, and has less consequences. I know that I am much more dismissive and sarcastic with a Naderite than I am with the political conservatives I know. One tries to have good faith arguments with one's adversaries, but with one's incredibly stupid friends, your friendship will survive you setting them straight once and for all.

  6. It may be that there is a population that reads big time blogs for the purpose of disagreeing (even with those bloggers with whom they actually agree), but then one has to ask why, what reinforces this behavior? Why would a person put effort into something of this sort, and endure the negative emotions of anger and upset involved?

    Wow, you really ARE new to this, aren't you? 🙂

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