Greater Good and Bad

Kevin Lewis

April 04, 2024

Moral panics on social media are fueled by signals of virality
Curtis Puryear, Jospeh Vandello & Kurt Gray
Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, forthcoming

Moral panics have regularly erupted in society, but they appear almost daily on social media. We propose that social media helps fuel moral panics by combining perceived societal threats with a powerful signal of social amplification -- virality. Eight studies with multiple methods test a social amplification model of moral panics in which virality amplifies perceptions of threats posed by deviant behavior and ideas, prompting moral outrage expression. Three naturalistic studies of Twitter (N = 237,230) reveal that virality predicts moral outrage in response to tweets about controversial issues, even when controlling for specific tweet content. Five experiments (N = 1,499) reveal the causal impact of virality on outrage expression and suggest that feelings of danger mediate this effect. This work connects classic ideas about moral panics with ongoing research on social media and provides a perspective on the nature of moral outrage.

The AI Ethicist: Fact or Fiction?
Christian Terwiesch & Lennart Meincke
University of Pennsylvania Working Paper, October 2023

This study investigates the efficacy of an AI-based ethical advisor using the GPT-4 model. Drawing from a pool of ethical dilemmas published in the New York Times column "The Ethicist", we compared the ethical advice given by the human expert and author of the column, Dr. Kwame Anthony Appiah, with AI-generated advice. The comparison is done by evaluating the perceived usefulness of the ethical advice across three distinct groups: random subjects recruited from an online platform, Wharton MBA students, and a panel of ethical decision-making experts comprising academics and clergy. Our findings revealed no significant difference in the perceived value of the advice between human generated ethical advice and AI-generated ethical advice. When forced to choose between the two sources of advice, the random subjects recruited online displayed a slight but significant preference for the AI-generated advice, selecting it 60% of the time, while MBA students and the expert panel showed no significant preference.

The public's overestimation of immorality of formerly incarcerated people
Sarah Kuehn & Joachim Vosgerau
Journal of Experimental Criminology, March 2024, Pages 269-295

Methods: In a benchmark study with people on parole and people without a criminal record, participants played a game that allowed them to deceive their counterparts in order to make more money. A subsequent prediction study asked an online US-nationally representative sample to estimate how both groups played the game. By comparing the estimated likelihoods to the observed likelihoods of deception we examine if people correctly assess the deception rates of both groups.

Results: Both groups showed an equal propensity to deceive. In contrast, respondents from the online sample believed that people on parole would be much more likely to deceive than their counterparts.

Ethical judgments of poverty depictions in the context of charity advertising
Shannon Duncan, Emma Levine & Deborah Small
Cognition, April 2024

Aid organizations, activists, and the media often use graphic depictions of human suffering to elicit sympathy and aid. While effective, critics have condemned these practices as exploitative, objectifying, and deceptive, ultimately labeling them 'poverty porn.' This paper examines people's ethical judgments of portrayals of poverty and the criticisms surrounding them, focusing on the context of charity advertising. In Studies 1 and 2, we find that tactics that have been decried as deceptive (i.e., using an actor or staging a photograph) are judged to be less acceptable than those that have been decried as exploitative and objectifying (i.e., depicting an aid recipient's worst moments). This pattern occurs both when evaluating the tactics themselves (Studies 1a-1c) and when directly evaluating critics' arguments about them (Study 2). Studies 3 and 4 unpack the objection to deceptive tactics and find that participants' chief concern is not about manipulating the audience's responses or about distorting perceptions of reality. Participants report less concern about non-deceptive manipulation (using emotion to compel donations) and 'cherry-picked' portrayals of poverty (an ad showing an extreme, but real image) so long as there is some truth to the portrayal. Yet they are more sensitive to artificial images (e.g., an actor posing as poor), even when the image resembles reality. Thus, ethical judgments hinge more on whether poverty portrayals are genuine than whether they are representative. This work represents the first empirical investigation into ethical judgments of poverty portrayals. In doing so, this work sheds light on how people make sense of morally questionable tactics that are used to promote social welfare and deepens our understanding of reactions to deception.

Rape or Homicide: Which Is Worse?
Richard Felson & Eric Silver
Archives of Sexual Behavior, March 2024, Pages 1001-1013

Some people believe rape is just as serious as homicide, or more serious, contrary to law. We examined the prevalence of this belief and whether it reflects an individual's political ideology and moral foundations. Analyses were based on a national YouGov survey of 1,125 US adults gathered in 2021. We found that only 26% of respondents believed rape was less serious than homicide. Most (61%) believed rape and homicide were equally serious, while 13% believed rape was more serious. Social progressives (particularly progressive women) were more likely than social conservatives to view rape as more serious or just as serious as homicide. However, this tendency was partially offset by the tendency of social progressives to view harm as a key factor in judging the morality of a behavior. We suggest that social progressives view rape more seriously than social conservatives because of their concern for gender inequality, but this concern is partially offset by their concern with harm.

Partitioned Prosociality: Why Giving a Large Donation Bit-by-bit Increases Moral Praise
Rebecca Schaumberg & Stephanie Lin
University of Pennsylvania Working Paper, October 2023

Donating money to worthy social causes is one of the most impactful and efficient forms of altruism. However, skepticism often clouds people's perceptions of donors' intentions, leading donors to switch to less effective forms of giving. We propose a solution to this issue: instead of giving a single large donation, donors can split the donation into smaller amounts over time. Six preregistered studies with 2,255 participants support this idea. Donors who divided their contributions received more moral praise than those who gave all at once, regardless of the partition size, frequency, or method of displaying the partitions. This effect arose because partitioning a donation signaled that the donor had more impulses to give. Accordingly, the effect was smaller when people gave on consecutive days (e.g., once a day for one workweek) than on nonconsecutive days because giving on consecutive days signaled that the donor had fewer prosocial impulses. Further speaking to the process, this effect emerged across both joint and separate evaluations of partitioned versus lump sum giving, indicating that this effect reflects how people think moral praise should be doled out. Overall, these findings underscore the connection between perceptions of donors' motives and moral praise, and they offer practical strategies for donors seeking to enhance the perceptions and impact of their charitable donations.

The pill you don't have to take that is still effective: Neural correlates of imaginary placebo intake for regulating disgust
Anne Schienle et al.
Social Cognitive and Affective Neuroscience, March 2024

A commonly established protocol for the administration of open-label placebos (OLPs) -- placebos honestly prescribed -- emphasizes the necessity of ingesting the pill for the placebo effect to manifest. The current fMRI study used a novel approach to OLP administration: the imaginary intake of an OLP pill for regulating disgust. A total of 99 females were randomly allocated to one of three groups that either swallowed a placebo pill (OLP Pill), imagined the intake of a placebo pill (Imaginary Pill), or passively viewed (PV) repulsive and neutral images. The imaginary pill reduced reported disgust more effectively than the OLP pill and was also perceived as a more plausible method to reduce emotional distress. Relative to the OLP pill, the imaginary pill lowered neural activity in a region of interest involved in disgust processing: the pallidum. No significant differences in brain activation were found when comparing the OLP pill with PV. These findings highlight that imagining the intake of an OLP emerged as a superior method for regulating feelings of disgust compared to the actual ingestion of a placebo pill. The study's innovative approach sheds new light on the potential of placebo interventions in emotion regulation.

Enriching Thinking Through Discourse
Deanna Kuhn, Sybille Bruun & Caroline Geithner
Cognitive Science, March 2024

Great effort is invested in identifying ways to change people's minds on an issue. A first priority should perhaps be enriching their thinking about the issue. With a goal of enriching their thinking, we studied the views of community adults on the DACA issue-young adults who entered the United States illegally as children. A dialogic method was employed, offering dual benefits in providing participants the opportunity to further develop their own ideas and to consider differing ideas. Yet, participants engaged in dialog only vicariously by observing the talk of a pair of actors who held opposing positions on DACA. The effect on participants' thinking was greatest in the condition in which they viewed a dialog between the two actors, rather than a comparison condition in which the actors individually expressed their positions. In control conditions, no presentation was observed. Probing questions included in all conditions encouraged a participant to examine and clarify for themselves their own position, potentially enriching it. This condition proved unsuccessful in enriching thinking; participants' justifications for their own positions in fact became simpler and less qualified. In contrast, observing a video of a like-minded and opposing other did enrich observers' thinking, yet to a greater degree in the dialogic than nondialogic condition. The findings thus suggest observed dialog as a promising practical approach in promoting deeper thinking.


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