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The Psychology of Blocking Others Online

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Online rejection is a subset of social exclusion. People reject others from social engagement for many reasons, and many of those have nothing to do with the person being rejected. Of course, there are, on occasion, good reasons to block someone – the online equivalent of social rejection.

For instance, if the blocked person appears to be trying to scam, defraud, or is making unwelcome advances and has not been receptive to the “no thank you” signals sent.

Many people block others out of emotional self-protection; the blocker cannot muster the courage to tell the blockee that their expressed interest is not mutual. In stronger terms, much online blocking is driven by avoiding an emotionally challenging online exchange (conversation).

People with low self-esteem and weight issues are more likely to avoid expressing their preferences or saying overtly what they do or do not want. By contrast, people with average or high self-esteem are more likely to be appropriately assertive and express their views or intentions without blocking.

Humans are social and tribal creatures and enjoy being with people, especially those who validate their worldview. People rarely want to explore, learn about, and understand other world views. Many people shut out and seek to shut down the expression of any worldview that challenges their own. They don’t want to hear it. Online, wilful deafness is much easier than in other social situations. People can block out any worldview they don’t want to hear instantly.

They don’t have to be diplomatic; they don’t have to explain that they disagree; they don’t have to put forward reasons; they can click; and their worldview runs no risk of being challenged or changed.

Everyone knows that almost everyone needs social acceptance. When someone blocks another online, they are engaging in the act of social rejection, which, they know, is likely to impact the psychological well-being of the person being rejected.

Indeed, in many cases, the blocker intends to damage or punish the blockee psychologically. Everyone has experienced social rejection and knows its pain. The blocker knows that they are trying to inflict emotional and psychological pain on the blockee. Even for a short period, socially excluded people experience emotional pain regardless of their self-confidence and self-esteem.

Why are blocking and other forms of social ostracism so damaging to people? Because it attacks four universal human needs at the same time:

  • the need to belong,
  • to have control in social situations,
  • to maintain self-esteem,
  • to have a sense of a meaningful existence.

The results of blocking, social rejection, and ostracism have been experienced by, and are known to, nearly everyone. The emotional and health damage is well documented. Almost all cases of anxiety and depression have a strong element of social rejection, abuse, or psychological torture.

Ostracism is used as psychological torture for those not prepared to comply with group norms. The more dysfunctional a group or individual is, the more willing they are to impose psychological torture on others. Even after doing something as mild as expressing a different or challenging worldview, the blocker(s) feel entirely justified in blocking, socially isolating, or imposing psychological torture on the other.

People find it easier to block or impose detriment after they have wronged someone. A decision is made by the blocker(s) that someone is “other,” not one of us, and different in some unpleasant way.

Once othered, the target of social isolation is deserving of sanction. That is, the act of blocking takes place after several mental stages in the mind of the blocker.

  • The blockee has been labelled as different from others.
  • Others are more likely to be a threat (usually in some unspecified way).
  • Threats from others require defensive or pre-emptive action.
  • Action against the other is then justified and executed.

In all its forms, xenophobia is a rejection of those who are different. Blocking others online, in many cases, is completely unrelated to anything the blockee has done; it is about the blocker being uncomfortable with differences. Decades of research into xenophobia indicated that xenophobic people are more authoritarian and insecure when exposed to people outside their group. That may be the case with blockers; they are more likely to block people who are not part of their homogeneous group.

Other motives drive some blockers. Such as ego and arrogance. Both lead to intemperate thinking, which can be expressed as:

  • I am right; you are wrong.
  • I am good; you are bad.
  • It’s my way or no way.
  • Anyone who thinks like that is a [insert the accusation of choice].

As a student of history, I know of no war where each side has not created the illusion of the other to mobilise their country or followers to murder the others. There seems to be an awareness among many leaders that the chances of conflict and war are increased by creating others. It may be that otherising is a necessary prerequisite for conflict and war.

Narcissism, sociopathy, and psychopathy (the toxic triad) can lead people to reject and impose detriment on others socially. Narcissists are more likely to reject and impose harm on others who do not fawn over them or who even dare to question them; diminishing others enhances their self-esteem.

Sociopaths and psychopaths don’t care what harm is imposed on anyone, as long as they get what they want. It seems they are much more likely to engage in blocking behaviour.

Even relatively normal people (those not in the toxic triad) will block others to justify their stance, to say: “I had to reject X person; that’s how bad they were.” Taking self-validating action makes us feel in control.

We all have the desire for control in our lives, and the act of blocking gives us the ability to take control over the people we are exposed to. That, in turn, enables us to protect our worldview.

Well-balanced, well-adjusted people want to know the views and opinions of others; they learn and grow from that knowledge. By listening to other opinions, they demonstrate respect, empathy, and wisdom.

Wisdom is most demonstrated by awareness of a lack of knowledge. All the most expert people I have had the honour to coach in any field are acutely aware of what they do not know and are prepared to learn from anyone. Blocking someone for non-threat reasons is blocking the development of wisdom.

Perhaps we can all take some time before pressing the block button. Maybe we can ask ourselves: ‘What are my motives here? Am I at any real risk? Or am I shutting down and shutting out alternative opinions? By blocking this person, am I demonstrating the opposite of wisdom?’

Professor Nigel MacLennan runs the performance coaching practice PsyPerform.


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