By Alice G. Walton/Forbes Woman: The Psychology of Texting: How Your Cell Phone Reveals The Inner You
The psychology of texting is starting to sprout as a hot-button area, though the research is still amazingly in its infancy. From what studies tell us (and from simple observation), we love love love our texts. It’s been clear for a while that cells phones serve a host of purposes: they make great fashion accessories, security blankets, and lunch dates. When you have nothing to do, or don’t want to look uncool because you’re the only single in a crowd of couples, there’s nothing like checking your cell phone to give you an edge.
But people use texts for a variety of other purposes. What’s fascinating is what people are willing to say in texts that they would never say in person. Somehow it’s OK to be a little more revealing, forthright, and feisty than it is when you’re talking face to face. And this honesty-via-text works both to our detriment and betterment. So why is it that texting gives us this extra oomph?
The short answer is because it puts some extra space between us and our recipients. It removes us from reality just enough so that we get up the chutzpa to say these things we’d normally be too anxious to reveal or ask of another. For this very reason, some psychiatrists, like Dr. Alan Manevitz, at New York-Presbyterian/Weill Cornell Medical Center, have integrated texting in their practices, encouraging patients to text message what’s happening in their lives in real time. While this sounds like it would be enough to drive a psychiatrist mad, it actually serves a great purpose.
Once upon a time, Manevitz says, people came to their psychiatrists to lie on the couch and free-associate, ratting off whatever was on their mind. Now, texts let us do this from the field. “Texts allow us to capture people’s voices in the situations they’re in, right when they’re in them. Then when they come in to the office, we talk about what’s happened, but I’m already aware of it through their texts in the preceding week. The events are captured instantaneously. This is not from memory (which can pose accuracy problems), it’s in real time.”
Texts also allow patients to be more comfortable opening up about their experiences than they tend to be in person. They’re more willing to reveal the thoughts they’ve had, says Manevitz, or the choices they’ve made, which is particularly true for teens who are experimenting with new activities and substances that they might be ashamed to reveal on the couch.
The best explanation of the phenomenon, Manevitz says, is Oscar Wilde’s well known quote: “Man is least himself when he talks in his own person. Give him a mask, and he will tell you the truth.” The masks that texts give us can make us refreshingly honest, mildly annoying, or pushed further, they let us be a little bit deviant.
A couple of recent studies have found more people using texts for not-so-great things, like bullying and “sexting,” which can border on harassing if it’s undesired. A study earlier this week found that “text-bullying” has become much more commonplace in the last few years. The rates of “victimization and perpetration” on the Internet steadied, but the text versions of these acts rose significantly.
Another new one revealed that 13% of kids engage in sexting, sending suggestive messages via cell, and almost as many have taken part in sharing nude or explicit photos. Sexting may be fun, but it is not always a positive experience for those involved, the study found. It’s also linked to a higher prevalence of depression in teens, and a greater likelihood for suicide attempts. This doesn’t mean that the one causes the others – only that the two tend to coexist.
Though most of the text studies are done in adolescents, it’s probably safe to say that adults are also using texts in some creative ways. Texting without thinking, says Manevitz, like firing off an angry one to your ex or boss is common, since there’s a satisfying immediacy involved in this method of communication. But, if used well, the very nature of texts also allow us to check ourselves, since we see the words before they are sent – which cannot happen in verbal communication. (Manevitz actually recommends sending yourself the text first, to test it out, which can be a good method for self-monitoring.)
So texts do have their benefits, but it’s a double-edged sword. Their existence has actually helped out the health industry, who have used text messages to help people improve themselves in the weight loss and quitting smoking departments. One recent study found that smokers were twice as likely to quit when they took part in a program that did things like send back words of encouragement when participants typed “lapse” into their cell phones after breaking their abstinence, or typed “crave” to receive tips to get through cigarette cravings.
It will be interesting to see if researchers start to devote more time to studying adults’ use of text messaging in other arenas. They’ve surely changed the way we interact in more ways than just these. Have you noticed that you behave differently in text than in email, phone, or in person? How have texts changed the way you communicate with others?