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Monday, June 3, 2024

Morality in the Anthropocene: The Perversion of Compassion and Punishment in the Online World

Robertson, C., Shariff, A., & Van Bavel, J. J.
(2024, February 4).


Although much of human morality evolved in an environment of small group living, almost six billion people use the internet in the modern era. We argue that the technological transformation has created an entirely new ecosystem that is often mismatched with our evolved adaptations for social living. We discuss how evolved responses to moral transgressions, such as compassion for victims of transgressions and punishment of transgressors, are disrupted by two main features of the online context. First, the scale of the internet exposes us to an unnaturally large quantity of extreme moral content, causing compassion fatigue and increasing public shaming. Second, the physical and psychological distance between moral actors online can lead to ineffective collective action and virtue signaling. We discuss practical implications of these mismatches and suggest directions for future research on morality in the internet era.

Significance Statement

Morality evolved when people lived in small, close-knit groups. Evolved responses to moral conflict, like compassion for the victim and punishment for the transgressor, had adaptive benefits. However, the internet has created a new ecosystem for human sociality changing morality in two important ways. First, the scale of the internet exposes people to unnaturally large quantities of extreme moral content. Second, people’s responses to moral transgressions are not beneficial in large, distal social groups. These mismatches can lead to compassion fatigue, ineffective collective action, public shaming, and virtue signaling.

Here is my summary:

The research discusses how the internet has transformed human morality by creating a new ecosystem that often conflicts with our evolved social adaptations. It highlights that the scale and nature of online interactions lead to compassion fatigue, public shaming, and ineffective collective action. The research emphasizes how evolved responses to moral conflicts, like compassion for victims and punishment for transgressors, are disrupted online due to the vast exposure to extreme moral content and the distance between moral actors. It delves into the evolutionary underpinnings of moral cognition, explaining how humans' innate behaviors related to social interactions have shaped morality. Furthermore, it explores how the internet exposes people to overabundance and extremity of moral content, triggering maladaptive responses like heightened outrage and hostility. The research also examines how online environments distort people's prosocial reactions to morality, leading to challenges in expressing genuine compassion, empathy, and effective third-party punishment.