The Science of Cyberbullying: Why People Can Be So Mean On Social Media

Have you ever been mindlessly gossiping about someone and feeling no remorse, until you see the person you were talking about in person? Or, have you noticed that people feel way more comfortable being rude over social media platforms rather than straight to people’s faces? What is it about the physical interaction that changes our decisions?

I’ve definitely noticed that social media or texting gives people a new level of confidence, and not necessarily in a good way. Cyberbullying has become increasingly rampant. Face-to-face conversations are seeming to dwindle away. I was aware of what was happening around me, but I never thought about the science behind it, until I read Incognito: The Secret Lives of The Brain by David Eaglemen. There’s a reason why people are more prone to talking about someone behind their backs than to their face, and it all boils down to the separate systems of our brain.

Our brain is divided into many parts, and one major takeaway I received from this book was that our brain is not operating as just one big mass, but it has many different voices, opinions, networks, and systems all interacting with one another. This makes sense. I’ve noticed that people argue with themselves, and at least two voices are needed to argue. Like Eagleman says, “There is an ongoing conversation among the different factions in your brain, each competing to control the single output channel of your behavior.”

The specific division I want to elaborate more on is, as Eagleman calls it, our emotional and rational systems. To provide a better explanation of the difference between them, Eagleman writes about this scenario (I am just going to include the whole excerpt from pg. 111-112):

A trolley is barreling down the train tracks, out of control. Five workers are making repairs way down the track, and you, a bystander, quickly realize they will all be killed by the trolley. But you also notice that there is a switch nearby that you can throw, and that will divert the trolley down a different track, where only a single worker will be killed. What do you do?

My gut reaction was that I would throw the switch.

If you are like most people, you will have no hesitation about throwing the switch: it’s far better to have one person killed than five, right? Good choice.

Now here’s an interesting twist to the dilemma: imagine that the same trolley is barreling down the tracks, and the same five workers are in harm’s way— but this time you are a bystander on a footbridge that goes over the tracks. You notice that there is an obese man standing on the footbridge , and you realize if you were to push him off the bridge, his bulk would be sufficient to stop the train and save the five workers. Do you push him?

My gut reaction was OF COURSE NOT.

But, what’s the difference? One person is being killed to save five. Why was mine, and probably yours, reaction so different?

Eagleman explains it like this : “Because that sort of personal interaction [pushing the man] activates the emotional networks. It changes the problem from an abstract, impersonal math problem into a personal, emotional decision. When people consider the trolley problem, here’s what brain imaging reveals: In the footbridge scenario, areas involved in motor planning and emotion become active. In contrast, in the track-switch scenario, only lateral areas involved in rational thinking become active.”

Basically, when we have personal interaction such as touch or face-to-face conversation, our brain’s emotional systems come alive. On the other hand, without that interaction we are left to make decisions with our rational thinking systems, and in my opinion, those systems tend to care less about people’s feelings.

I think most people are genuinely nice people, but even the nicest people can fall prey to forms of bullying when their emotional systems are not active. So, this is the thought I want to leave with you: before you say something, comment on something, send a text, or do anything that involves someone who is not there, maybe think again. Would you do it if that person was right next to you? That answer should help guide your choices.

And remember these wise words from Eleanor Roosevelt…

“Great minds discuss ideas; average minds discuss events; small minds discuss people.”

— Brynn


Eagleman, David. Incognito: the Secret Lives of the Brain. Canongate, 2016.





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