Psychology on the Internet

The scandal around the unauthorized collection of data by the British consulting company Cambridge Analytica, prompted an increased awareness about the mechanisms of behavioral psychology used on a large scale online. Political debate and, crucially, voters' sentiments were influenced by the data that had been collected. By collectiing data gleaned from social media, Cambridge Analytica was able to microtarget individual users with content that influenced their personal choices. For example, microtargeting enabled political advertising that was designed for the psychological and social profiles of individual users. The same candidate in an election could display contradictory political ads with impunity, which often led to a distortion of the political debate.

Microtargeting is also used to spread disinformation around the world. We can imagine that social groups can be divided based on specific preferences, fears, etc. The basis of such social influence is the study of human behavior and what emotions different behaviors trigger. In the Cambridge Analytica affair, the OCEAN model, which is designed to learn about personalities and, specifically, traits such as extraversion, neuroticism, openness, empathy, and conscientiousness, was used to influence and manipulate users. With advances in technology, and data collection and processing capabilities, we can expect that OCEAN to be only one example of the possibilities for influencing Internet users. Disinformation is often designed specifically as visual stimuli, to induce fear or even trauma, which can make people highly vulnerable and thus easily controllable. The first step in building resilience online is to know yourself. Below, we present BASIC Ph, an integrative model for coping with stress, which can help users develop mental resilience.

How do we react when our traumas are activated?

Some of us may have experienced a sudden and scary moment that shattered continuity in our lives and instilled a sense of loss of control. Reactions to trauma are individual. Some get through emotionally difficult moments smoothly and are affected only briefly; others may be frozen in trauma for many years without being able to process difficult situations. Some people have a trauma response only to very strong stimuli, while others to may be affected by even the smallest stimulus. These differences result from various factors and will impact on our psychological resilience.

The most common responses to trauma or to the memory of traumatic events are anxiety and fear. Such reactions can occur, for example, as a result of recalling a car accident, an attack, an illness, a specific place, a person, a sound, and/or a smell. Trauma can also cause difficulties in concentration, hyper-arousal, irritability, nervousness, isolation, sadness, depression, feeling angry, feeling out of control, guilty and ashamed, and/or falling into addictions. Insofar as online content can contribute to trauma responses, our online activity can impact on our real lives through the content we are exposed to and engage with. If you are already experiencing such symptoms, it may be worth consulting a specialist. Fortunately, it is possible improve our resilience and we strongly advocate for taking active measures to do so since online presence is a permanent feature of daily life for many of us. In other words, resilience can be learned.

What is the BASIC Ph model?

The BASIC PH model was created by Professor Mooli Lahad in the 1980s and continues to be developed by the Israeli Community Stress Prevention Center, among others. The model integrates key psychological concepts (including from: Sigmund Freud, Erik Ericson, Carl Gustav Jung, Ivan Pavlov, Aaron Beck, Abraham Maslow, Carl Rogers, Alfred Adler, Edward De Bono, Albert Ellis, John Watson) and provides a multifaceted understanding of the coping channels we have in order to deal with difficult situations and to protect ourselves from harmful content and images on social media. In the context of a general crisis situation (e.g. a global pandemic, a refugee crisis, a war that has global impact), up to 50% of the population of a given country is at risk of mental health problems and may need intervention. Some will recover quickly, others will experience a crisis. The BASIC Ph model can help discover the best coping channels and how to build mental resilience, which can support us also in our online „jungle".

BASIC Ph is an acronym that describes six coping strategies (channels) in crisis situations:

Belief - beliefs and values: holding religious faith, believing in God, having a sense of non-religious mission, giving meaning to an event, having a political motto, self-realization and self-expression;

Affect - an affect or emotions: externalizing emotions, crying and laughing, telling someone about an experience or through a poem, a story, a drawing, etc.;

Social - the social sphere: relying on family, friends, feeling part of a group/organization having a task to do and taking on a role in society;

Imagination - fantasy: drawing on the imagination, daydreams, pleasant thoughts, forgetting violent images, imagining alternative solutions to a problem, improvization;

Cognition - the intellectual sphere: gathering information, making a plan of action, problem-solving, listing activities, inner self-talk, self-guidance;

Physiology - the bodily sphere through physical expression: relaxation exercises, sleeping, physical activity, physical household chores, energy expenditure.

Anywhere from one to three channels can be dominant for a given individual, which means that they can most effectively help to release the emotions that accumulate when watching or reading stressful or traumatizing content on the Internet. By analyzing our way of coping in response to overwhelming and anxiety-inducing content, we can consciously strengthen our individual coping channel and try to develop others. The above description of the six channels can serve as a roadmap in this process.

How can BASIC Ph be used in practice?

We have already noted that in today's world very few people have the option to 'disconnect' from the virtual world, and the virtual world clearly has an impact on the real world. If it is not possible to disengage from the media and eliminate scary images, but we experience stress or feel that some content may have activated unprocessed trauma, consider the following questions, which can help make an initial self-diagnosis and determine which of the BASIC Ph model channels might be most supportive:.

● Do you like to go for a walk when feeling stressed? Do you find cooking or cleaning to be helpful? Or perhaps you feel the need to go for a run? If you prefer releasing physical energy in a stressful situation, your coping channel is the physical activity channel 'Ph'.

● Do you write an action plan in a crisis? Do you look for solutions? Or perhaps solve sudoku, assemble puzzles or build model airplanes? Do you need facts and refer to logic? There's a good chance you're a 'C', so your soothing channel is the cognitive one.

● Do you 'drift off' like a child into a world of imagination, fantasy and daydreaming when you are feeling bad? When you talk about something, do you refer to metaphors, or use the phase ‘as if’ often? Do you use humor or refer to magical objects in order to psychologically soothe yourself? This might mean your channel is "I", or imagination.

● When you experience a challenging moment, do you seek out family or friends to talk to or do you go out to places where there are people? Do you like to highlight what role you are in or refer to authority figures for support? You are an 'S' and the social sphere helps you to get your balance.

● Do you talk a lot about how you feel? Do you refer to whether you are happy, sad, missing someone or feeling grief? Think about what helps you to express your emotions in a way that is not destructive. If you write poetry, enjoy improvization or singing, perhaps enroll in a course to develop these skills. If you feel like expressing yourself in this way in difficult moments, you are most likely an 'A' person, or someone who uses the affect/emotion channel.

● In difficult times, do you appeal to God, or think about destiny, a higher power, or fate? Do you find solace in refering to values, a sense of cohesion or integrity? Perhaps you keep a favorite sentences hanging above your desk? Or perhaps you pray in hard times? This means that you are a 'B' person and your soothing channel is that of beliefs and values.

You probably answered 'yes' more than one of the above channels. Go back through and consider again which activities bring you the most peace and relief. Identify at least two or three channels that feel closest to you. Be aware of the channels that are best for you and use them when recovering from online stressors. Consider also developing alternative ones. Having more sources and practice for relaxing and self-soothing can enhance your wellbeing in times of distress.

If you wish to learn more about this model, I recommend the book The “BASIC Ph” Model of Coping and Resiliency: Theory, Research and Cross-cultural Application.

Background illustration: Photo by from Adobe Stock license