Just look at our pizza decisions. A team of scientists led by Avi Goldfarb recently analyzed more than 160,000 orders placed over four years at a North Carolina pizza chain. Because the chain introduced an online ordering system in the midst of the study period, the researchers were able to conduct a field experiment into how the introduction of technology changed the content of customer orders. According to the data, presented recently in the journal Management Science, online customers chose pizzas that were more complicated, expensive, and idiosyncratic, containing 33 percent more toppings, 20 percent more bacon, and 6 percent more calories. In terms of popularity, online pizza orders contained 9 percentage points fewer top-10 items.
What caused this shift? The scientists argue that people ordering pizza on a screen are more likely to express their true desires, since a screen (unlike a human cashier) won’t judge their selection. As a result, they order fewer traditional pizzas, leading to a far greater variety of pizza configurations. This is known as the online disinhibition effect and it applies in many different situations. It’s why we tend to be more honest when asked questions by machines and why digital pornography features more “exotic” content than its analog competition.
I can’t help but wonder if such disinhibition might influence our voting decisions on screens. More research is definitely needed, but one implication is that people might be more comfortable voting for a fringe party or candidate that seems to represent their true political preferences if they’re voting on a screen.