We live in an age where interactions and collaboration even at great distances are just a click away. We could have hosts of varied and profitable virtual friendships, instead we often seem to be perched on conflicting positions and without nuances, ready to hide from the bulletin board the first contact that does not think like us.

If in real life we ​​are capable of polite and respectful relationships, online we seem to regress. Where does this limit come from? Is there a way to re-educate cooperation in these digital communities of ours? The timeless theme is at the center of an article published on BBC Future.

Born to help. For decades anthropologists have been wondering what drives human beings to cooperate to form strong and productive communities. The most accredited theory sees the roots of our innate kindness in the evolutionary advantage that collaboration offers, in terms of survival.

Even if contributing to a common project has a cost, for the individual - and in many situations, at least in the immediate future, it would earn more to behave in a selfish way - there are tasks in which we cannot succeed alone (think of the financing of a hospital or, in the case of the first human communities, looking for provisions).

In the ancient hunter-gatherer societies, the interactions took place with people who would meet again in the immediate future: to behave in an individualistic or aggressive way was therefore a counterproductive choice. With time we have not changed: online cooperation experiments such as those conducted by the University of Yale (in Connecticut, USA) show that, even in psychological tests in which it is necessary to choose whether to be generous to contribute to a common cause, our immediate belly reaction tends to cooperation.

Image The human race according to Pawel Kuczynski | Pawel Kuczynski

Isolated and unpunished. If this instinct is so inherent in human nature, there must be something in the experience of social media that brings out the keyboard lion hidden in each of us. But what? Probably the lack of institutions . While in the first human societies strict social rules were in force for activities such as the sharing of food, online interactions guarantee physical distance, anonymity and a reduced risk of punishment, if one acts incorrectly.

Sounding board. At the same time, however, online we have a way to loudly express our reactions to a situation that we deem unjust, and to increase our reputation if we choose to rebel. In real life, those fortunate enough to live in a peaceful environment have few opportunities to scream outrage. When it succeeds, the reward center in the brain is activated: this reinforces the "moralizing" behavior and encourages it to be implemented again. But online is another story.

As Molly Crockett, an expert researcher on human interactions at Yale University's psychology department, explains, "we have created an ecosystem online that selects the most rabid content, along with a platform where expressing disdain is easier than ever before. now »Suffice it to say that, as recent research has shown, every expression with a moral or emotional connotation increases the probability of a content being retweeted by 20%.

Image The truth illustrated on our generation. | Ajit Johnson

Listen to everyone. Compared to the real world, we do not take physical risks in shouting our disappointment, and we have not one or two witnesses (as would be the case away from the keyboard), but the entire array of contacts and followers that we have collected. The "like" only reinforce the search for consensus, so expressing disdain or strong opinions becomes a habit. And as such, it will become an automatic practice, to be implemented without thinking twice.

Go against the pros. But the echo that anger finds online can also be exploited in a positive way, to give voice to instances that would otherwise be ignored (as was the case, for example, with the recent campaign against easy access to arms in the USA promoted by the students of the Florida). There must be a way to turn interactions on the Net in a positive direction. Yes, but which one?

Virtuous examples. Psychologists from the Human Nature Lab of Yale University have been working on it for some time. One way is to identify a few very listened individuals - the "influencers" - and involve them in campaigns for the benefit of the community. For example, in public health: this approach is being tested in Honduras to widen the pool of mothers who join their children in vaccination campaigns.

buffalo, fake news, twitter Anyone on a bad day can turn into a virtual screamer. And leave friends stunned. | Shutterstock

Artificial moderators. Another strategy currently being studied is to infiltrate a few sensible posts created by a bot - a program capable of generating content automatically - to help humans make an alliance and make a common front, or interventions out of the chorus to make it more varied and less monolithic the discussion within strongly compact and aligned groups (forcing users to get out of the bubble of the filters that they themselves create in online interactions).

In one experiment it was seen that it is sufficient to create a bot with a white face as a profile photo, and use it to respond calmly but decisively to racist comments against black users, to quell this form of online abuse in a few weeks.

Mister Hyde. It is also necessary to understand that the trolls are not necessarily characters who do it by trade: we can all become one, thanks to a bad day. Introducing an algorithm capable of predicting when an online interaction will most likely be antisocial (for example, because it is Monday morning, a moment in the mood) and delaying written replies gave good results. Almost all of us, being able to think twice, give more reasonable answers.

Novellini. In any case, we must be patient: we have had thousands of years to get used to interactions in person, and just a handful to learn how to manage those online. In reality we have facial expressions to help us resolve tensions and understand irony; on social media, it may be necessary to introduce some extra emojis or punctuation to quell any possible misunderstanding in the bud. While learning this art, it is worthwhile to stay calm, block or ignore the bullies (or report them in cases of serious harassment); and above all, think before writing.