Monica Whitty’s career has been shaped by a question posed to her by her students. It was the late 1990s, when the internet was rapidly being adopted, particularly within universities, and in her native Australia at that time the internet access was slow, but cheap and therefore growing rapidly. And her students asked this: why didn’t her classes in social psychology include anything about people on the internet?
Whitty therefore saw an opportunity: not to think of the internet as a separate, magical space, but to ask how what we know about human behaviour related to it. An early point of focus suggested itself in the form of the use of online dating sites, which took off sooner in Australia than in many other places. Besides the already-noted relative low cost of internet access, the country’s remoteness also was an important factor.
By 2003, when she came to the UK to take up a position at Queen’s University Belfast, she was well along in studying how and why people form relationships online and how these are different from the ones they maintain in the physical world. This work has led to myriad papers and projects, and five books and another two under preparation. Examples include: Cyberpsychology: The study of individuals, society and digital technologies (with Garry Young, Wiley, 2017), and Truth, Lies, and Trust on the Internet (with Adam Joinson, Routledge, 2009).
“The Internet has led to many changes in the way individuals play, love, work and communicate”, she says.
Whitty’s career began with a psychology degree at Macquarie University, where she was encouraged to pursue first a bachelors degree, followed by an honours degree and then a PhD. She enjoyed the subject because it straddled arts and sciences and, “Understanding humans was fascinating”. Her honours dissertation studied coping styles, defence mechanisms, and psychobiography, work that also led to the 2010 paper Coping and defending: Age Differences in Maturity of Defence Mechanisms and Coping Strategies (PDF), which studied the use of coping strategies and defence mechanisms in different age groups from 17 to 70.
For her PhD dissertation, she studied young people’s narratives of their future lives, and the different possibilities that men and women imagined for themselves. After completing her PhD, she went into teaching, looking for something new to research. It was then that her students began asking that question.
Her subsequent 2003 paper, Cyber-flirting: Playing at Love on the Internet (PDF) was one of the first to study flirting in cyberspace. At the time, it was commonly thought, as Whitty puts it, that “online relationships are just a meeting of minds, and like-minded people will meet up together and the biases and discriminations of the physical world will slip away”, not least because the 1990s internet had very little in the way of pictures. Instead, Whitty found that, “The body still matters in cyberspace”, even though at the time personal online communications consisted of just typing text to each other.
As the web increasingly began to support pictures and video, this behaviour inevitably changed, suggesting new studies. Her 2007 paper, Revealing the “Real” Me, Searching for the “Actual” You: Presentations of Self on an Internet Dating Site (PDF) studied the way people choose to present themselves on online sites, both dating sites and other types of discussion spaces, and what strategies led to successful offline romantic relationships. Whitty revisited this thread in a 2016 paper written with James Doodson, Sadie Creese, and Duncan Hodges, A picture tells a thousand words: What Facebook and Twitter images convey about our personality. This paper looked more specifically at the images people choose to represent themselves on social media and how these are constructed. How and how well, the researchers wanted to know, does personality predict the choice of image profile pictures? They found some correlations, for example that more conscientious people are more likely to update their profile images, as are introverts on Facebook.
Whitty has also studied the interaction between people’s online and offline lives. In the 2005 paper Taking the Good with the Bad (PDF), written with Adrian N. Carr, for example, she studied cyber cheating – that is, the impact of internet relationships and online erotic interactions on couples. This paper found that while individuals may perceive their online interactions as “unreal” and separate from their offline relationship, energy is still being drained away from the offline relationship.
Similarly, the 2011 paper What I Won’t Do in Pixels: Examining the Limits of Taboo Violation in MMORPGs, written with Garry Young and Lewis Goodings, looked at the emotional impact on hard-core adult gamers of participating in symbolic taboo activities such as killing, torture, and rape in massively multiplayer online role-playing games. Most of the participants in this study felt they could easily separate their activities in the gamespace from the real world; however, the paper found this was not universally true, and at least emotionally not the case for activities that had no acceptable real-world equivalent, such as rape. The researchers believe that this work should be significant for game designers, psychologists, and censorship bodies.
Also in 2011, with Tom Buchanan, Adam Joinson, and Alex Meredith, Whitty published the diary study Not All Lies Are Spontaneous: An Examination of Deception Across Different Modes of Communication. This paper studied lying across different media, both online and offline. In this case, the researchers found that, “You might find different results depending on the features of the space” – that is, the particular medium used. These features and the affordances they create – for example, Twitter’s 140-character limit, or whether communications are synchronous (like phone calls) or asynchronous (like email) – affect behaviour. For example, in some spaces people expect quicker responses than others; in some spaces users learn the identities of their correspondents and in others they don’t; and some spaces allow messages to be recorded and reread, and in others they’re ephemeral like telephone calls. Earlier studies had found that on average we all tell one to two lies a day, and also that more lies are told using synchronous, unrecorded media, such as the telephone, than using asynchronous recorded media like email. This study sought to establish whether people were more likely to be deceptive online than when using earlier forms of communication such as telephone calls and face-to-face meetings. The feature-based model the researchers developed to explain deception across different media suggested that instant messaging should be treated as a near-synchronous mode of communication and that such models need to distinguish between spontaneous and planned lies.
A 2015 study of password sharing with James Doodson, Sadie Creese, and Duncan Hodges sought to identify the type of people most likely to share passwords and make poor security decisions more generally. The findings from this research turned out to be the opposite of the results many people might expect: younger people were more likely to share passwords than older people; increasing knowledge about cyber security did not make people less likely to do it; and among personal traits only a lack of perseverance proved to be predictive of sharing passwords. The assumption that growing up with the internet makes younger people less vulnerable, emerges from Whitty’s research as often not really true: they may be more experienced online, but they are also much more exposed.
Whitty has also carried out extensive research on cyber-scams, in particular romance scams. The result has been to created a detailed victimology. These studies, such as The Scammers Persuasive Techniques Model: Development of a stage model to explain the online dating romance scam (PDF), have led her to contend that these types of scam take place in stages that are important to understand if we are to improve detection, prevention techniques, and strategies to reduce the number of victims who are conned.
All of these disparate elements of her work have led to Whitty’s latest effort, leading the TIPS-funded Detecting and Preventing Mass Marketing Fraud project, which includes computer scientists, HCI specialists, a philosopher, and a computer scientist.
“If you’re looking at trying to detect scammer profiles, you need to know what people normally do,” Whitty says. The types of fraud DAPM is investigating, which include romance, investment, and work-from-home scams, are not a small problem: Whitty found in 2012, based on a nationally representative survey, that there may be as many as 230,000 UK victims of romance fraudsters over the years 2007 to 2011, with financial losses of between £50 and £800,000 per person.
One of DAPM’s goals is to try to further identify the stages involved in these scams and understand their psychology. This knowledge will be then passed on to the computer scientists to see if they can automatically detect these stages.
“Psychology can inform detection,” she says.
If they succeed with this proof of concept, the next question will be how to make it usable. One possibility may be to publish the algorithms so that dating and other services might deploy them to improve the detection of scams on their sites. However, education will still be needed. Programmes aimed at older people learning to use computers might include elements about protecting themselves from scams; repeat victims might benefit from help from a family member or community police. Different methods will be required for different people, and some cases are complex, but at the moment, Whitty says, we’re not dealing well with the simpler cases. The reports people make of frauds don’t get acted upon, and the information that’s available isn’t read.
“We need to find the simple bits of advice that we can work with that change behaviours and keep ourselves a bit safer,” she says.
In recent years, Whitty has also worked on the SuperIdentity project, studying real and cyber identities; the UNDERWARE project, aimed at understanding West African culture in the interests of preventing cybercrimes; and the Corporate Insider Threats Detection project, which developed a model to underpin detection systems. She has also given assistance to the City of London police interviewing fraudsters. That one student question has taken her a long, long way.