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Monday, January 9, 2023

The Psychology of Online Political Hostility: A Comprehensive, Cross-National Test of the Mismatch Hypothesis

Bor, A., & Petersen, M. (2022).
American Political Science Review, 
116(1), 1-18.


Why are online discussions about politics more hostile than offline discussions? A popular answer argues that human psychology is tailored for face-to-face interaction and people’s behavior therefore changes for the worse in impersonal online discussions. We provide a theoretical formalization and empirical test of this explanation: the mismatch hypothesis. We argue that mismatches between human psychology and novel features of online environments could (a) change people’s behavior, (b) create adverse selection effects, and (c) bias people’s perceptions. Across eight studies, leveraging cross-national surveys and behavioral experiments (total N = 8,434), we test the mismatch hypothesis but only find evidence for limited selection effects. Instead, hostile political discussions are the result of status-driven individuals who are drawn to politics and are equally hostile both online and offline. Finally, we offer initial evidence that online discussions feel more hostile, in part, because the behavior of such individuals is more visible online than offline.

From Conclusions and General Discussion

In this manuscript, we documented that online political discussions seem more hostile than offline discussions and investigated the reasons why such hostility gap exists. In particular, we provided a comprehensive test of the mismatch hypothesis positing that the hostility gap reflects psychological changes induced by mismatches between the features of online environments and human psychology. Overall, however, we found little evidence that mismatch-induced processes underlie the hostility gap. We found that people are not more hostile online than offline; that hostile individuals do not preferentially select into online (vs. offline) political discussions; and that people do not over-perceive hostility in online messages. We did find some evidence for another selection effect: Non-hostile individuals select out from all, hostile as well as non-hostile, online political discussions. Thus, despite the use of study designs with high power, the present data do not support the claim that online environments produce radical psychological changes in people.

Our ambition with the present endeavor was to initiate research on online political hostility, as more and more political interactions occur online. To this end, we took a sweeping approach, built an overarching framework for understanding online political hostility and provided a range of initial tests. Our work highlights important fruitful avenues for future research. First, future studies should assess whether mismatches could propel hostility on specific environments, platforms or situations, even if these mismatches do not generate hostility in all online environments. Second, all our studies were conducted online and, hence, it is key for future research to assess the mismatch hypothesis using behavioral data from offline discussions. Contrasting online versus offline communications directly in a laboratory setting could yield important new insights on the similarities and differences between these environments. Third, there is mounting evidence that, at least in the USA, online discussions are sometimes hijacked by provocateurs such as employees of Russia’s infamous Internet Research Agency. While recent research implies that the amount of content generated by these actors is trivial compared to the volume of social media discussions (Bail et al. 2020), the activities of such actors may nonetheless contribute to instilling hostility online, even among people not predisposed to be hostile offline.