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H807 – Emotional incontinence

March 15, 2011

Your really have to love that psychological ‘stuff’, it explains human behaviour pretty good 😉

Theodore Dalrymple (2002) talks about emotional incontinence, that people’s attitude change towards public expression of emotion and that the signs of the collective loss of control are everywhere, given e.g. mass public drunkenness as example. He provides different reasons for his claim as Ben-Ze’ev gives and he is not talking about cyberspace, but I like the term emotional incontinence as it covers quite good the prevalent phenomenon.

Ben-Ze’ev (2003) covers the following issues

  • privacy
  • emotional closeness and openness
  • Exposure
  • anonymity
  • cyberspace vs. face-to-face

Ben-Ze’ve main claim is that the relative anonymity in cyberspace allows us to protect our privacy, control what we want to reveal, leading thus to greater emotional closeness and openness as in ‘real’ life. In face-to-face relationships privacy conflicts with emotional closeness and openness. Being emotional close means losing some of our privacy, but protecting the own privacy prevents us from being emotional close. A conflict that Ben-Ze’ve claims is less pronounced in cyberspace. His argumentation takes a similar line as Spears and Lea (1992)  that an online environment can create greater emotional/social closeness as a face-to-face setting, because they are more homogeneous and so its members feel a stronger bond and identify more with the group.

Privacy is characterised by the right to be left alone, to be allowed to pursue one’s activities without interference, scrutiny or comment. Private is that which is confined to, or intended only for, a certain person and that is not the legitimate concern of others.

Within personal and social relationships we have to compromise our privacy, because friendship means sharing, and sharing means relinquishing some privacy. Ben-Ze’ve refers to an trade-off between emotional closeness and openness on the one hand and privacy on the other hand. There is a negative relationship between privacy and emotional openness and closeness. Lesser privacy means greater emotional closeness and openness contrary to more privacy and lesser emotional closeness and openness. Within a relationship these boundaries of our privacy zone are redefined. However, Ben-Ze’ve also cautions us that a close relationship does not mean to become on entity, and not to surrender one’s whole privacy. Maintaining an own identity requires a certain degree of privacy and autonomy.

However, how does that apply to cyberspace, the internet. Ben-Ze’ve claims that the trade-off between privacy and emotional closeness is not so dominant in online relationships, because the greater ability to conceal private information. Certainly a closer online relationship also means to disclose more information, thus lose some privacy, however we are in greater control which information we want private aspects we want to reveal. Anonymity is also higher in cyberspace safeguarding a higher degree of privacy.

Exposure the act of public confession of shameful actions is next to net-cams that monitor the daily life of people, be it ‘Big Brother’ or other reality shows phenomenons that came up in recent years. People are willing to surrender any morsel of privacy and shame and to endure humiliation to gain some public fame (Sykes cited in Ben-Ze’ve,2003). To have this moment of pseudo-celebrity, which they would not achieve through accomplishments, they give up their privacy. Interesting phenomenon – I was always amazed how people are easily willing to make a fool of themselves. Look at all the talent shows, the first shows are actually the ‘best’ because most of the people do not really have any talent, but want to be in the limelight for a couple of minutes even if that means that means to act the fool. Thereby the act of expose itself now seems more exciting as the content of the secrets exposed or the failure to e.g. peform to sing or dance. Ben-Ze’ve argues that the public display changed. When the action is voluntary and publicly revealed to the whole community, it may not be shameful anymore, it may even become a matter of pride. That seems really an upside-down world, but it explains human behaviour.

The transparent society

David Brin (cited in Ben-Ze’ve,2003) assumes that there is no way of hiding private information, and hence we should let everyone have access to it. Brin argues that ‘if we all lived in glass houses, no one would throw stones. Well, I don’t mind not  to cover my window with curtains and blinds during the day allowing to get enough light in and also to see what is going on outside, yet I still prefer a certain degree of privacy, especially in the night when I light up window is just too much exposure to the outside world. My degree of exhibitionism is no so high 😉

However, on the other side I agree with Ben-Ze’ve that cyberspace seems to provide an ideal place for voluntary openness that reduces our privacy zone without considerable increasing our vulnerability. About a year ago my attitude towards too much openness in the Internet, giving up privacy was different. I believed that it would be best not to be found in a Google search. However reading Richardson(2008) article/blog where he comes to the conclusion that our ‘digital footprints’ of who we are, what we do, and by association, what we know, are becoming increasingly important to our lives, convinced me to be more explicit and to be better found in a Google-search, than to end like ‘Rene’.

Writing this blog liberates me, I am willing to give up some privacy, although only to a certain degree, thus I am in control how much in my ‘About me’ section is revealed. So far not much, but this is right now a matter of lacking time, not my wish to not reveal more. I am more open, that I am sometimes surprised about myself, but my openness has its limits. Yes, a google search reveals now a lot of hits, but they all are study related, you will (at least I hope 😉 find any compromising entries or pictures.

Despite the convincing case Ben-Ze’ve made, reading Bayne’s (2005) article in H800, showed me that e.g. students often feel not in control, they often feign the identity they assume the teacher/tutor want to see. That would somehow contradict Ben-Ze’ve’s findings.


Ben Ze’ev, A. (2003) ‘Privacy, emotional closeness, and openness in cyberspace’, Computers in Human Behavior [online], vol.19, no.4, pp.451–67. Available from: (accessed 15.03.2011).

Bayne, S. (2005) ‘Deceit, desire and control: the identities of learners and teachers in cyberspace’, H800 Technology-enhanced learning: practices and debates (accessed 25 February 2010).

Dalrymple, T. (2005) ‘They’ve got to get it out of their systems’ in Malone, C. et al. (eds) Relating Experience, Stories from Health and Social Care, Anthology edn, Open University Press, Routledge, pp.30-32

Richardson, W. (2008) ‘Footprints in the Digital Age’, Educational Leadership, vol.66, number 3, pp.16-19; also available online at (accessed 27 June 2010).

From → H807

  1. I had a good time reading some of there blogs. I think I’ll be back for some more.

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