Emotions on the Net


Aaron Ben-Ze’ev (Israel)


This paper discusses the nature of emotions in online relationships. It first compares some basic features of emotions in offline and online circumstances and then examines whether emotions in online relationships are similar to those in offline relationships or whether we are witnessing the emergence of new types of emotions.

In offline circumstances, emotions are typically generated by perceived significant changes, their focus of concern is personal and comparative and its typical object is a human being. Typical emotional characteristics are: instability, great intensity, partiality, and brief duration. Basic components are cognition, evaluation, motivation, and feelings. In addition to emotions, there are other affective phenomena, such as sentiments (enduring emotions), moods, affective disorders, and affective traits (Ben-Ze’ev, 2000).

Emotions in cyberspace in many aspects resemble those of offline circumstances. Emotions in cyberspace share similar features to offline emotions-although some of these features may be more or less noticeable online. Three such major features are change, instability, and the availability of an alternative.

Emotions typically occur when we perceive positive or negative significant changes in our personal situation, or in the situation of those related to us. A positive or negative significant change is one that significantly interrupts or improves a smoothly flowing situation relevant to our concerns. Like burglar alarms going off when an intruder appears, emotions signal that something needs attention. When no attention is needed, the signaling system can be switched off. We respond to the unusual by paying attention to it.

Cyberspace is full of changes and new opportunities-in this sense it is indeed an exciting place. The changes are of less personal significance since the available opportunities are not designed for a specific person and if you miss one opportunity, many others are still available. The presence of so many changes and the active role that imagination plays in online relationships can somewhat compensate for the normalization effect in which a change becomes normal and hence unexciting. The physical absence of the partner in online relationships, further removes certain constraints upon our imagination and the normalization effect is weaker.

Our psychological reality consists of both stable and unstable events. The successful combination of the two gives us both emotional excitement and a sense of calmness and security-both are crucial for a happy and healthy mental life. Cyberspace is more unstable, dynamic, and transitory than our real environment is. Thus we would expect to find that transitory emotions are more dominant while enduring affective attitudes are more rare. If in our regular everyday life we often look for changes in order to make our life more exciting, in cyberspace we often look for stability in order to facilitate calmer and enduring online relationships. The lack of stability in cyberspace often generates more intense and more transitory emotions. This is true of both positive emotions and negative emotions.

Emotions occur when a change is evaluated as relevant to our personal concerns. Emotions serve to monitor and safeguard our personal concerns; they give the eliciting event its significance. Emotional meaning is mainly comparative. The emotional environment contains not only what is and what will be experienced, but also all that could be or that one desires to be experienced. For the emotional system, all such possibilities are posited as simultaneously available and are compared to each other. The emotional meaning of online relationships is also comparative by nature: it relates, first of all, to our offline environment. The belief that cyberspace provides us with better alternatives is crucial in generating intense emotions. This may somewhat compensate for the less personal and practical nature of cyberspace.

The comparison underlying emotional significance encompasses the mental construction of the availability of an alternative situation. The more available the alternative-that is, the closer the imagined alternative is to reality-the more intense the emotion. Cyberspace does not merely significantly increase the availability of desired alternatives, but it is actually an alternative, available world, which runs parallel to the actual one. Sophisticated technology allows a rapid shift from one world to another. Cyberspace is becoming the next best thing to being there, and in some respects it is even better than the world we actually live in. In offline circumstances, we live in a real world and fantasize about virtual events that will improve the world; in cyberspace, we live in a virtual world and we attempt to incorporate in it more and more pieces of actual reality.

Emotions are functional and rational in many offline circumstances. Their functionality and rationality is less evident in cyberspace because of its novel nature and the fact that people have not yet learned how to cope with it. This may change as this medium evolves as we become more able to combine online with offline relationships.

Although emotions are largely spontaneous, they can be managed to some extent. This management is easier in cyberspace, as the imaginative aspect is more central in generating online emotions, and in many cases it is easier to manage our imagination-and thus our cognitive evaluation-than to change actual events.

The new kind of interpersonal relationships generated by online communication seems to have a profound impact upon our emotional experiences. Such relationships do not eliminate emotional experiences, but rather intensify them. So far, we have not observed the generation of new kinds of emotions, but this possibility should not be ruled out. It should be noted that the development of new types of emotions and the increase in the complexity of existing animal emotions has characterized our evolution from non-human animals to humans; nevertheless, in this evolutionary process none of the animal emotion ever completely disappeared. It is not clear yet whether online relationships will constitute such significant changes in our emotional life as to generate new types of emotions.


Ben-Ze’ev, A. (2000). The subtlety of emotions. Cambridge, Mass.: MIT Press.

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