Davis Essay 2

The Digital Personality Split


In psychology, a personality refers to “the sum total of the physical, mental, emotional, and social characteristics of an individual” or “the organized pattern of behavioral characteristics of the individual.” Personalities are the bottom line of the equation that defines what it is about each of us that sets us apart from one another and makes us unique. For as long as humans have been self-aware, we have sought to determine what it is about us exactly that makes us human. Until very recently in our timeline, however, we have had no methodical approach to this dilemma. Only when modern science began to thoroughly understand the human body did we turn our attention towards psychology and matters of the mind. Psychology as a scientific discipline is relatively young, only dating back to roughly the 16th century. So it comes as little surprise that psychology is a scientific frontier, with new discoveries on the human mind emerging frequently to revise or overturn our previous understandings of how we function.


While most people only have a single equation for their collective experience in the world, other people have something closer to a system of equations, which all hold true, but with each one not necessarily equating to the others. That is to say, some people have multiple personalities, or perhaps just one personality split into multiple fragments. According to medical texts, this condition is known as “dissociative identity disorder” or “multiple personality disorder.” The single discerning point of such a diagnosis seems to hinge on the existence of multiple distinct personalities within a single person (accompanied by severe memory loss between the personalities). Beyond this, the rough edges of medical science begin to show, as experts are still torn on other points of the disorder. Does this disorder actually exist? Is it rooted in medicine, or a byproduct of therapy? And why do the majority of cases appear in North America? Perhaps a brief look at the history of split-personalities will explain why the mental health community has as-yet been able to come to a final consensus regarding the disorder’s exact details.

The History Of

Only within the last two centuries have multiple personalities been considered a medical condition. Prior to that, the problem was instead a spiritual crisis, with the afflicted person being considered possessed. Early connections to other potential medical causes included epilepsy, which still remains a subject of modern discussion. Only within the past century have scientists accepted emotional trauma as another major potential contributing cause. At the turn of the 20th century, many studies on split-personalities were revealed to be hoaxes, and the categorization of schizophrenia (“an abnormal perception or expression of reality”) as a disorder further served to decrease diagnosis and interest in multiple personalities. The past roughly fifty years have seen the re-emergence of interest in multiple or split personalities as a viable medical disorder though, largely as a result of explorations of the underlying concepts in popular entertainment media. At the present, the scientific community regards possessing multiple personalities a viable medical ailment, though heated debate continues, particularly on the disproportionate number of diagnoses that occur in North America.

How and why?

The typical causes of split-personality disorders seem to stem from occurrences of overwhelming stress or traumatic incidences (particularly in the individuals childhood). (Skeptics suggest as an alternative that instead suggestible patients are being manipulated by a select number of therapists, but for the purposes of this essay, we will work with the more feasible possible cause of trauma.) Thus the division of memory and personality traits within an individual can be seen as a defense mechanism to survive in situations that might otherwise be unbearable. While a wide range of characteristics can be indicative of dissociative identity disorder, including physical symptoms as well as other separate mental ailments, let’s look at just a handful of key signs of the disorder:

  • Multiple mannerisms, attitudes and beliefs that are not similar to each other
  • Distortion or loss of subjective time
  • Loss of self-awareness
  • Altered perception or experience of the external world so that it seems strange or unreal
  • Lack of intimacy and personal connections

Interestingly enough, many of these symptoms are also characteristic of another sort of problem that is facing the current generations…

Welcome to the Web

Let’s get to the bottom line here: people don't always act the same way online as they might in person. Whether it is the forum trolls that say wildly inappropriate things under the veil of anonymity (things that they would be held accountable for if they said them with their own mouths), or people that are just able to say things online that they can’t find the nerve to say in person, oftentimes people will react starkly different in a digital environment than they would in the physical world. All of the indicators of multiple personality disorder listed in the previous section could also be found in people that are largely considered normal and sane by today’s standards, so where do we draw the line? Are these people any saner than those diagnosed in previous decades of having a severe and potentially debilitating mental disorder? Or have our opinions about the connection between our physical and mental presences changed enough to justify different responses depending on how we encounter information? Has the Internet created an environment in which it is viable, or perhaps even beneficial, to be able to separate and alter or control the way in which we interact with one another?

So what's changed?

Digital media and communication just seems to naturally fit with a more controlled and restricted version of ourselves. Never before have we been able to consciously and constantly monitor and dictate how we want others to perceive us as we can in the digital age. Even through a medium as seemingly simplistic as email can we see this sort of personality shift – the personality in emails is almost definitely more formal and proper than the sort of language and communication that most people use in their daily lives. This seeming split in personalities has never been more readily apparent than through the evolution of Web 2.0 technologies. Never before has altering other people’s perceptions of us been so simple and effective as it is when a person is directly in control of what information about themselves is out on the web. So in this light perhaps digital interaction is not strictly a form of split personalities operating independently of one another, but rather a single personality creating an altered version of itself in order to make some sort of social changes or gains online, that the person might be otherwise unable to achieve in real life.


So why do people behave differently online than in person? If the slice of the population that is digitally active isn’t suffering from some sort of highly debated mental illness, why does it seem sometimes that there is such a disjoint between how they behave in person, and how they behave when their personality is converted into zeros and ones? The two most feasible and widespread understandings of this phenomenon have to do with a decrease in inhibitions and the time-frame that the digital world operates in.

One thing that the Internet has brought us is the concept of genuine anonymity. Of course everything we do can be traced back to us through an IP address, but not everyone is able to access this information, and the people that do often opt not to pursue this digital trail back to its physical user. As a result, people feel freed to say and do things online that they either don't have the nerve to in real life, or things that would have obvious repercussions if they were identified as the communications source. This isn’t always necessarily a bad thing, as it can open our lives up to a broader range of social experiences that might otherwise be hindered by the natural judgmental nature of humans.

One positive thing about the Internet (that has been largely diminished by users of Web 2.0 technology that divulge a great deal of information about themselves to large populations of others) is that it is largely blind to the sort of prejudices that limit us in our real lives. We are freed from unfairly judging the merit of what someone is saying based on their race, gender, age, or any other potentially unimportant factor by means of simply not knowing these details about a person. As you can see through the abundant popularity of Web 2.0 technologies, however, people aren’t quite ready to abandon the realm of superficial judgment. Perhaps this is the result of younger generations’ migration to the digital world, and the diminished experience they’ve had with the rampant discrimination of the past.

One group that is particularly interested and concerned with this phenomenon of individual empowerment online is marketing organizations. Apparently consumers empowered to speak their minds is a less desirable thing online than in the physical world. Typically, it seems like consumers only want to hear positive feedback or endorsements from users, but at the same time consumers only seem compelled to speak out about products and services when they encounter a problem or have criticism to offer the company. And in the real world, users might have cause to worry about damaging their relationship with a company through speaking out, or suffering consequences from the companies that possess far greater resources than most individuals have access to. In the digital arena though, the anonymity of communication allows users to speak their minds, which marketing giants still seem to disregard as “extreme” in the instances that they are unwilling to accept what people are saying. So perhaps in that regard not much is changed from real life.


Final Thoughts

Modern digital users might not suffer from true dissociative identity disorder, but we seem to have created a scenario of split-personalities that could be equally as significant in impacting our own lives and the lives of those around us. The key difference in the emergence of seemingly split personalities medically and digitally seems to be that the person is making a conscious choice to portray themselves differently online. These digital personas we’ve created for ourselves are our ideal selves, possessing all the traits we wish were more abundance in physical selves, and omitting any traits that we find undesirable or that hold us back. This concept of optimizing ourselves as individuals seems to have very deep roots in Web 2.0 technology, as we seek to share ourselves in a more effective way with others, and leave a digital footprint that marks our existence for future generations. The catch, of course, is that we want only certain things remembered – only the positive things – and want everything else struck from the record. In this regard, perhaps the Internet isn’t a perfect replacement for human memory – sometimes there are things about ourselves that we’d simply like to forget, but in the biological world, things aren’t exactly that simple.


Dictionary.com - "Personality"
Wikipedia.com - "Dissociative Identity Disorder"
eMarketer.com - "Consumers Free to Speak Their Mind Online"
Psychology of Cyberspace - "The Online Disinhibition Effect"

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