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Welcome to the nexus of ethics, psychology, morality, philosophy and health care

Saturday, January 5, 2019

Emotion shapes the diffusion of moralized content in social networks

William J. Brady, Julian A. Wills, John T. Jost, Joshua A. Tucker, and Jay J. Van Bavel
PNAS July 11, 2017 114 (28) 7313-7318; published ahead of print June 26, 2017 https://doi.org/10.1073/pnas.1618923114


Political debate concerning moralized issues is increasingly common in online social networks. However, moral psychology has yet to incorporate the study of social networks to investigate processes by which some moral ideas spread more rapidly or broadly than others. Here, we show that the expression of moral emotion is key for the spread of moral and political ideas in online social networks, a process we call “moral contagion.” Using a large sample of social media communications about three polarizing moral/political issues (n = 563,312), we observed that the presence of moral-emotional words in messages increased their diffusion by a factor of 20% for each additional word. Furthermore, we found that moral contagion was bounded by group membership; moral-emotional language increased diffusion more strongly within liberal and conservative networks, and less between them. Our results highlight the importance of emotion in the social transmission of moral ideas and also demonstrate the utility of social network methods for studying morality. These findings offer insights into how people are exposed to moral and political ideas through social networks, thus expanding models of social influence and group polarization as people become increasingly immersed in social media networks.


Twitter and other social media platforms are believed to have altered the course of numerous historical events, from the Arab Spring to the US presidential election. Online social networks have become a ubiquitous medium for discussing moral and political ideas. Nevertheless, the field of moral psychology has yet to investigate why some moral and political ideas spread more widely than others. Using a large sample of social media communications concerning polarizing issues in public policy debates (gun control, same-sex marriage, climate change), we found that the presence of moral-emotional language in political messages substantially increases their diffusion within (and less so between) ideological group boundaries. These findings offer insights into how moral ideas spread within networks during real political discussion.
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