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05.05 Online pain or online gain? Can the exposure of disagreement paradoxically render online communication a medium suited to sustainable cooperation?

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The central aim is to examine whether the very same factors that can undermine communication and cooperation online compared to in offline/face-to-face communication (FtF), notably 1) impaired conversation flow and 2) strategic concerns associated with features of the medium, may actually facilitate cooperation in the longer term, paradoxically enhancing the prospects of sustainable cooperation.

Theoretical background

Online communication is often regarded as promoting conflict rather than cooperation: people are disinhibited (Suler, 2004), disagreements escalate very easily (Roos et al., 2020), and bipolarization seems inevitable (Kiesler et al., 1984). In these studies, however, it is often very difficult to disentangle which factor causes this: structural and strategic factors are intertwined with conversational factors, both of which can be related to the affordances and limitations of the medium. Features of online communication (e.g. isolation, anonymity) can result in reduced accountability and more direct and disinhibited communication (strategic factors; see the SIDE model) with deleterious consequences (disinhibition, flaming, trolling, etc.). At the same time aspects of the online medium, even when virtual rather than text-based, can disrupt conversational flow (e.g., due to time lags), undermining the normal nuances of FtF communication. There is now much research demonstrating the downside of online communication for all these reasons. However, most of this research is focused on short time perspectives (cross-sectional research, one shot studies) and less is known about how such factors might affect cooperation emerging through such communication in the long run. Paradoxically there may be reasons to be more optimistic: our central thesis is that the very same factors that may cause online communication to undermine short-term cooperation may actually rebound in positive ways in the longer term (a virtuous cycle or feedback loop). First we briefly review the effects of flow and strategic factors relating to media features to set the scene for our rationale.

            Conversational Flow. Previous research indicates a good conversational flow is important for maintaining relationships (Koudenburg et al., 2013; 2017). This could explain why online disagreements escalate more easily because the technical limitations of the online discussions disrupt people’s ability to maintain a smooth conversational flow (Roos et al., 2020; 2021). This reflects the a-synchronicity of the medium: speakers might receive messages with a short delay, or type at the same time, causing decreased responsiveness. More interesting for current purposes, is that speakers online were also less ambiguous. Speakers ambiguated their statements FtF, to soften their impact in an effort to develop common ground (‘politeness tactics’; see Brown & Levinson, 1987). The clarity of statements in online conversations were, however, often misattributed to a lack of concern for the other (Roos et al., 2020), which was interpreted as good for FtF. However, disagreements are also more likely to remain concealed, reducing the opportunity to negotiate resolution, or reach a common understanding. While the experience of shared cognition may benefit from flow and diplomatic ambiguity, resolving differences may not.

            Strategic factors associated with features of the medium (SIDE model). Our earlier research conducted in the context of the Social Identity model of Deindividuation Effects (SIDE model; Spears & Lea, 1994; Spears, Lea & Postmes, 2001) has come to rather similar conclusions to the research of on conversation flow, albeit for different reasons. This research examined the effects of the typical features of online communication media such as computer-mediated communication (e.g. physical isolation, asynchrony, visual anonymity, etc). This research emphasized that key features like anonymity and isolation can reduce accountability to one’s audience, facilitating more direct and disinhibited communication, but also allowing for greater freedom of expression, especially where power relations might impede this (see also Koudenburg et al., 2014). Traditional turn-taking in FtF communication also means that in groups with diverse opinions, participants may be overly influenced by the first or early contributions (typically made by powerful group members) and withhold contrary opinions to maintain harmony, impeding optimal information sharing. In sum, online discussion may be more direct and disinhibited, but also more diverse and democratic.

            Integrating flow and strategic concerns. Rather than seeing these research traditions as separate, we propose that they are closely related and require closer integration. It is misleading to regard conversational flow as mainly about the form or style of communication (how things are said), whereas strategic factors (e.g., relating to anonymity, accountability, asynchrony) affect freedom of expression (or what is said). The central question of the research program is then whether the often-lauded advantages of offline/FTF communication can also cause problems for attaining sustainable cooperation and whether online communication forms might circumvent some of these problems.

Research Design

The proposed research tests whether, although short-term relationships may be more effectively maintained in face-to-face compared to online controversial discussions, FtF discussions may conceal disagreements, thereby reducing the chance of solving them. Online, the exposure of disagreements may be momentarily painful or awkward, but also provides an opportunity to negotiate these disagreements, and creating more sustainable cooperation. The following research program is illustrative rather than definitive but gives an example of the potential scope and direction of the research. Note that online and FtF communication have many structural differences (relations between speakers, time-span of the interactions), but in our experiments we aim to keep the structure as constant as possible. Illustrative study designs are now outlined.

Line 1: Are opinion differences more likely to be revealed, and resolved online?

Study 1.1 employs a repeated measures design in which student groups discuss controversial issues in three media conditions (text-based chat (co-present), text-based chat (isolated/ anonymous) vs. FtF), while we measure their own opinion change and their perceptions of other group members’ opinions. Study 1.2 extends this design by assessing longitudinal effects throughout three weekly conversations aimed at finding a solution for the issue.

Line 2: Do conversational flow and strategic factors conceal opinion differences?

In Study 2.1, dyads or small groups discuss two controversial topics in a video (vs. audio, anonymous) call while we disrupt (vs. not disrupt) conversational flow by introducing delays (see Koudenburg et al., 2013). Study 2.2 focuses on observers and uses a video paradigm to manipulate flow. We test whether flow (vs. disrupted flow), and a lack of anonymity, conceal opinion differences, and make participants experience (Study 2.1) and observers perceive (Study 2.2) validation regardless of opinion differences.

Line 3: Do conversational flow and strategic factors amplify intergroup differences.

Because people may assume that outgroup members have different opinions, maintaining flow in communication with outgroup members may provide and excuse and mechanism to avoid a real discussion of controversial issues. As a result, while within groups, flow may conceal opinion differences, between groups it might fail to reveal opinion similarities. Group members with similar vs different identities (between-groups identity manipulation) discuss controversial issues in a conference call with flow (vs. disrupted flow, repeated measures, Study 3.1; vs. audio call, Study 3.2). In a longitudinal between-condition design Study 3.3 assesses the sustainability of cooperation over time.




dr. Namkje Koudenburg (Social Psychology)

prof.dr. Russell Spears (Social Psychology)

dr. Leah Henderson (Philosophy)

Location: University of Groningen 


Brown, P., Levinson, S. C., & Levinson, S. C. (1987). Politeness: Some universals in language usage (Vol. 4). Cambridge university press.

Kiesler, S., Siegel, J., McGuire, T. W. (1984). Social psychological aspects of computer-mediated communication. American Psychologist, 39, 1123–1134.

Koudenburg, N., Postmes, T, & Gordijn, E.H. (2013). Conversational Flow Promotes Solidarity. PLoS ONE 8(11): e78363. doi:10.1371/journal.pone.0078363.

Koudenburg, N. Postmes, T., Gordijn, E.H., (2017). Beyond Content of Conversation: The Role of Conversational Form in the Emergence and Regulation of Social Structure. Personality and Social Psychology Review, 21(1), 50-71.

Roos, C. A., Koudenburg, N. & Postmes, T., (2020). Online Social Regulation: When Everyday Diplomatic Skills for Harmonious Disagreement Break Down, Journal of Computer-Mediated Communication, 25(6), 382–401,

Roos, C. A., Koudenburg, N., & Postmes, T. (2021).Dealing with disagreement: The depolarizing effects of everyday diplomatic skills face-to-face and online. New Media & Society.

Spears, R., & Lea, M. (1994). Panacea or panopticon? The hidden power in com­puter-mediated communication. Communication Research, 21, 427-459.

Spears, R., Lea, M., & Postmes, T. (2001). Computer-mediated communication: Social pain or social gain?. In P. Robinson & H. Giles (Eds.) The new handbook of language and social psychology. (pp. 601-623). Chichester: Wiley.

Suler, J. (2004). The online disinhibition effect. CyberPsychology & Behavior, 7, 321–326.

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