A sneaking sympathy for Patrick Nulty

He may have been suffering from the Bart Simpson delusion: if no one saw you do it, it never happened

Patrick Nulty: will scuttle off into that murky place in our consciousness reserved for public figures who once did something wrong, only no one can quite remember what. Photograph: Gareth Chaney/Collins

Patrick Nulty: will scuttle off into that murky place in our consciousness reserved for public figures who once did something wrong, only no one can quite remember what. Photograph: Gareth Chaney/Collins

Wed, Mar 26, 2014, 01:00

Patrick Nulty’s behaviour – sending creepy Facebook messages to female constituents, including one of 17 – was sordid and wrong. Once it had been exposed, the only thing for him to do was to resign.

He at least did so quickly, leaving us with some high-minded sentiments about his belief in a “fairer and more just society”. He will never have a chance to show us how he intended to achieve one. Instead, he will scuttle off into that murky place in our consciousness reserved for public figures who once did something wrong, only no one can quite remember what.

There was nothing memorable enough in the revelations to earn him a place in the annals of powerful men who risked it all for sexual thrills: no bunga-bunga parties, no cigar in the Leinster House loo. He was no Dominique Strauss-Kahn, no Charlie Haughey. God love him, he hardly amounted to an Anthony Weiner. As far as we know, the entire history of his sexual misadventures never amounted to more than a few embarrassing messages online.

And on this basis, it’s difficult not to have a sneaking sympathy for him.

Nulty blames alcohol for his unravelling and has said he will be seeking treatment for his personal problems, but there is another explanation. True, he may not have sent those messages if he hadn’t been drinking; but it would have been impossible for him to send them if it hadn’t been for Facebook.

The term “the online disinhibition effect” is now more than 10 years old – it was coined by American psychologist John Suler, who showed how the internet unleashes aspects of our personality we normally manage to keep hidden. It’s the same effect that makes us swear at other drivers, when if they jostled us on the footpath we would likely mumble a “sorry” and go on our way; taken online, it can make otherwise mild-mannered people post abusive messages to others. The effect has less to do with anonymity, it seems, than with the absence of eye contact and the social cues that normally govern our interactions – and the sense that, as Nulty put it himself, online everything is a “harmless game”.

Nulty, like many of those felled by an intemperate tweet or status update before him, may have been suffering from what psychologists call “illusory anonymity”, or the Bart Simpson delusion: if no one saw you do it, it never happened. In one American study, participants took part in an experiment where they had the opportunity to profit financially from lying about their success at problem-solving tasks. Under bright lighting, only one in four did, while when the lights were dimmed, the number who cheated rose to 60 per cent.

We like to believe the world is divided into good, upstanding people with a clear moral compass and boundaries, and bad, ethically bankrupt ones, the kind who become sexual predators, petty criminals or, say, hedge-fund managers. Unfortunately, psychological studies don’t bear this analysis out. It turns out that there’s not much separating the first group from the second; sometimes, it’s as little as the return of another human gaze.

If true sociopaths – those with, among other things, a lack of inhibitions, low empathy and a disregard for social norms – are few, the dim lighting of the online world seems capable of temporarily unleashing the hidden sociopathic tendencies in the most well-balanced of us.

No matter how drunk, would Nulty ever have walked up to a stranger in a bar, and asked her if she had been spanked? I don’t know him, but I would venture it’s unlikely. That doesn’t excuse him, of course – plenty of people get drunk and have Facebook accounts and manage not to sexually harass 17-year-olds. But instead of revelling in his demise, we might be wiser to look on it as a cautionary tale.

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