The Internet and Social Interactions: Fitness Community?

Posted on 26 Jun 2014 18:39

I've written about attributions many times. Attributional thinking is a kind of causal thinking. Attributions are basically the explanations we give for things that happen. This is important in sports and performance. To what do we attribute our failure? To what do we attribute our success? Let's say you're a boxer and your opponent hits you below the belt. You are going to either think he did it on purpose, or by accident. Let's say you end up losing the bout. Your attribution about the low blow is going to color your reaction to losing. So, attributions are not just about ourselves, but about others. To what do we attribute their behavior?

Yet, if you are personally "confronted" by someone, in a boxing match, then you have some cues as to whether the low blow was just accidental or purposeful, right? The situation at the time of the foul gives you information. Was there a lot of tying up and confused punching? I.E. desperation? A low-blow might more likely to be assumed accidental in that situation. If your opponent, on the other hand, just hauls off and whacks you in the balls, and then grins while the ref gives a warning, well, that's another matter. You're going to assume it was intentional!

Boxers are part of a community of boxers, and part of an extended community of people involved with boxing. However, today, like most of us, they are part of a personal social community and an internet social community. On the internet, we lack the situational and other feedback we get in personal interactions. When someone hits your with a "low blow" on the internet, i.e. makes a sarcastic remark, you don't have the normal social cues. Maybe the person thinks they are being like Don Rickles, but with Rickles, it's not just what he says, but how he says it. That is often lost in textual communication. Social information processing theory differentiates between face-to-face communication/ or FtF and computer-mediated communication, or CMC. In Psychology and the Internet: Intrapersonal, Interpersonal, and Transpersonal Implications, author Jayne Gackenback discusses this, although not everyone agrees on the nature or severity of the problem:

In text-based environments, the differences between people that would otherwise inhibit the formation of a personal relationship are hidden. This promotes a sense of group membership that is dependent solely on the limited perceptions of the individual available through CMC. When indiviudal differences are less conspicuous, group membership becomes more prominent (Postmes et al., 2002)1

Virtual community participation is "an imaginative rather than a sensory experience" (Reid, 1994). Control over impression formation is enhanced in text-only mediums, because people have more command over the timing and content of their self-disclosures (Walther, 1996). People judge one another online based on perceived group similarity or difference. They engagne in an over-attribution process2(Lea & Spears, 1992) and assume things about others based on their own unconscious projections. In their mind's eye, they fill in a picture of others online with whatever cues they have, never fully aware that a large part of that picture is based on their own assumptions and misattributions.

Gackenback goes on to say what we all realize: People are just way less inhibited on the internet. Interestingly, the example given is something we in the fitness industry are all too familiar with, being that it centers on disagreement! When we are having an online discussion, it is important to remember, even on Facebook, that we are part of a certain social group. This will influence our behavior. And, when someone disagrees with us, what we see as their "group" will of course influence our response. If you are part of the "calories don't count" crowd, I might have some preconceptions about you. They might be wrong but they are hard to shake. But, beyond that, if you only ever debate or discuss on the internet, you might not recognize the different connotations of the statement "I disagree with what you said."


First published in 1998 and one of the first books to truly examine
the role of the internet in our intrapersonal, interpersonal, and
transpersonal psychology, Psychology and the Internet, 2nd Edition,
updates and expands the breadth of the first edition,
bringing it into today's internet reality.

Suppose we are discussing something in person, and are friendly and on good terms. Maybe we're having a beer and generally having a relaxed time. But, we get into some pretty heavy stuff, and you make a statement. I say to you "I disagree with that." But, I'm looking at you in a certain way, and nodding my head, etc. Because of the way I am acting, you take my disagreement more as in invitation to elaborate on your views. I'm sort of "inviting you" to convince me. I am displaying a certain kind of openness. This same conversation happens on the internet and you do not have those social cues. It is really up to your mood, and your attributions about me at that time, how you are going to react to my saying "I disagree with what you said." There are reduced cues. What is ironic is that both sides of the debate, those who find value in CMC and those against it, both point to these reduced cues: One side says relationships are artificial and trust is fleeting due to reduced cues, and the other side says CMC is good because we are liberated from those cues! I doubt that is an all good or all bad thing, and I am sure the proponent and opponents would agree.

Regardless, when processing any type of information, and as Jamie Hale is fond of pointing out, we tend to be cognitive misers. We take shortcuts and use heuristics instead of painstakingly going through everything with a fine-tooth comb. It is just easier for me to "assume" you mean a certain thing, lacking a smile or a frown, crossed arms, or a well-timed slap upside the head, than to go through a drawn-out give and take to gleam your true meaning. I use attributions to do that. Of course, I make attributions in person as well and people make them about me. Yet, in person, false attributions, no matter how self-serving have a tougher time surviving, at least in my experience.

And, it is important to realize that attributions do tend to be self-serving. Even people on the internet with whom I have a more personal relationship continue to attribute attitudes to me I don't actually possess. Much of this has to do with our need to place our friends in social groups we see as favorable, and perhaps even virtuous. That brings me to why I used the term "fitness community" with a question mark, in the title. We often see ourselves as part of an online fitness community, strength training community, exercise community, etc. but, there is no distinct community. There are, instead, hundreds of complex social groupings, with even more complex overlaps and interactions. There are, of course, many similar articles about the social aspects of the internet that are much more informed, and informative than this one, but I think it is important, when we conduct more and more of our social lives on the internet, including professionally, that we recognize the advantages and the limitations.

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This page created 26 Jun 2014 18:39
Last updated 20 Oct 2015 03:11

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