In a new study published in the Journal Psychological Science, psychologists Chen-Bo Zhong and Vanessa Bohns of the University of Toronto and Francesca Gino of the University of North Carolina suggest that under the cover of darkness, people’s worst traits come out.  When human operate in darkness – literally, when a room or environment are not as well lit as others, and they think they can’t be seen — they are more prone to lying, cheating and stealing.

The study found that even small steps such as people putting on sunglasses in a bright room will lead many of them to assume their actions cannot be monitored, and they will soon begin taking ethical liberties. The study was widely reported in the media, and the best explanation of how the experiments were organized can be found on the Time Magazine website.

For the authors, darkness can be equated with anonymity, which to me has significant implications for the Internet, where, as the famous New Yorker cartoon once noted, “On the Internet, nobody knows you’re a dog.” As Zhong, professor of organizational behaviour at the University of Toronto’s Rotman School of Management and lead author of the study, told the Toronto Star: “Anonymity can license unethical behaviour.”

Unfortunately, anonymity has become standard operating procedure online, best illustrated by the websites that invite reader comment. Few sites insist that visitors clearly identify themselves, and the upshot is that much of what is posted online by way of reader reaction is rubbish.  Take that anonymity away, and the results can be dramatic.

Consider the New York Times approach to reader feedback, which Anthony Williams and I discuss in our upcoming book, MacroWikinomics. Four years ago the Times saw the writing on the wall and appointed Jonathon Landman as deputy managing editor, with the mandate to reinvent the paper around the Internet. Today the Times’ web site is widely regarded as one of the best and most innovative media sites in the world. Landman says he built on two of the Times’ greatest strengths: The top-flight journalism it produces, and equally important, the top-flight readers such journalism attracts. “Our quality proposition is central to who we are,” says Landman.

All reader feedback is identified by the reader’s name and passes through the hands of en editor. The name-calling and ad hominem drivel typical of most newspaper comment pages isn’t tolerated. “We are not shy about moderating things out,” says Landman. “There is no constitutional right to have your comments published. And certainly if it’s abusive or stupid or something, well then, what’s the point, why is that a good thing?” The result is an articulate discussion by readers with the paper and readers with one another.

The high-quality dialogue improves the editorial content. “Editors look at the comments and they then draw conclusions about the kind of editing it may still require. You can tell, for example, that people may not understand something. It’s not clear. So you fix it. Either you may get additional facts or you may get an interpretation challenged and see that you have to adjust it someway. So in a very real sense, readers are participating in the editing even if they don’t know they’re doing it.

“The challenge is to create an environment in which the right kind of people want to participate… Wikipedia has done a miraculous job of preserving standards in a collaborative way, and to me the great accomplishment of Wikipedia is not so much that it gets a lot of people participate. That’s actually relatively easy. It’s that it’s able to enforce clear set of accepted standards and that it’s able to get the community to enforce those standards.”

To be sure, not all anonymity is bad.  Sometimes it allows people to ask questions or make comments that would be awkward or inappropriate if their true identity were known.  But such occasions are relatively rare.