Technology and our blindness to its ramifications have placed mankind on an unknown trajectory advancing at the speed of light; if we do not slow down long enough to consider our destination, we may unwittingly and prematurely become faced with our own mortality (metaphorically, if not literally). Virtual reality has become a playground for anonymity, dissociation, and the whims of the id. Our legal system is severely lagging behind the savvy of virtual crime and psychology is poorly equipped to face the changing dynamic of the way its consumers interact.
Self becomes more anonymous and thus, unrestrained. Self becomes anything we want it to be and this instability of self is not judged mentally disordered. Current society devotes so much time to discovering the true self and places tremendous value on finding the answer. Do we realize that through interaction with the virtual world, we are undoing what we are seeking, perhaps even as we are seeking it? Many of us long to again entertain the fanciful world of childhood make-believe, but know this will lead to certain scorn. The virtual world allows us to be someone else for a short period of time and to escape the doldrums of everyday life. This does not necessarily create a problem until individuals begin to abandon real life for the virtual or begin to take risks they would never consider in the physical world (e.g., giving your address and personal information to a virtual friend/real-life stranger). Has a society generally devoid of real-world risk led us to create our own risk for entertainment value via shifts in virtual self and risky behavior in the virtual world?
Action and actor are becoming dissociated. Do we view the man who murdered someone with his bare hands similarly to the man who pushes a button to launch a missile? Technology has enabled this disconnect between not only actor and action but between actor and responsibility. How does the court system handle cyberbullying versus face-to-face bullying and how do we treat these behaviors in therapy? Certainly, individuals in both scenarios are culpable but as therapists, we may have more difficulty convincing one of a more abstract level of responsibility than a concrete, behavioral level of responsibility. Challenging maladaptive overt behavior is a much more objective endeavor than challenging attitudes, cognitions, and covert or virtual behavior. Indeed, the theory of cognitive dissonance states that when faced with discordant behaviors and attitudes, we are more likely to change the attitudes because they are more malleable, whereas behavior is overt and more difficult to rationalize or change post facto. What implications does this theory hold for virtual “behavior” or behaviors conducted by a remote actor?
Virtual therapy may be the wave of the future. The internet application called “Second Life” allows you to create a virtual world with a virtual self, an avatar. Prominent therapists have proposed setting up accounts in Second Life to train new cognitive therapists and eventually even conduct therapy. Though this sounds a bit far-fetched, therapists in rural areas are already implementing and evaluating the efficacy of remote therapy via teleconference. Obviously, the remote therapy dynamic is not ideal for purposes of safety and rapport building, but in many cases, this may be some individuals’ best chance at receiving optimal services or any services at all. Despite concerns regarding physical disconnect between mental health professional and client, if psychology does not keep up with current technology, “therapeutic” resources in these forms are sure to spring up elsewhere and will certainly be utilized by consumers for convenience sake (e.g., therapy apps). We are a pill-popping, fast-paced, action-oriented society who wants to see the fruits of our labor, yesterday. We don’t have time for face-to-face appointments, grueling standardized testing procedures, waiting lists, or in-depth, long-term therapy. If psychology does not change to face societal demands, it will become as antiquated as our old friend, the telegraph. The paradox is, if psychology changes to prevent extinction, we risk losing the magical parts that make it work (e.g., the feeling of connectedness you can only feel by being in the presence of another human who is fully engaged in what you are experiencing).
The obvious consequences of a shift from actual identity to virtual identity are terrifying: greater anonymity, a changeable self, dissociation from act and actor as well as diffuse sense of responsibility. The popular press has elucidated some of the problems already caused by such identities as well as our lack of preparedness for addressing the ramifications. More terrifying, are the consequences that have yet to manifest themselves and the consequences that we will be unable to predict. Through our own doing, we appear to have created a personality-snatching monster. Perhaps the quandary facing us is not where we will be in 50 years, but what we will be.
Note: I originally wrote this essay on 05.07.09 as a course assignment while I was a Ph.D. student. I thought it would make a timely blog post, over 8 years later with a vastly changed social media landscape. The YouTube video below, featuring former Facebook executive Chamath Palihapitiya, brings my concerns into present day focus.
Brianna Mann, Ph.D., provides OCD treatment, PTSD treatment, and anxiety treatment in the Lake Minnetonka, Mound, and St. Louis Park, Minnesota areas. Brianna has been a therapist, specializing in the treatment of anxiety for 12 years; for more information, please see www.briannamannphd.com.