Why Moral Emotions Go Viral

Social media is changing the character of our political conversations. As many have pointed out, our attention is a scarce resource that politicians and journalists are constantly fighting to attract, and the online world has become a primary trigger of our moral outrage. These two ideas, it turns out, are fundamentally related. According to our forthcoming paper, words that appeal to one’s sense of right and wrong are particularly effective at capturing attention, which may help explain this new political reality.

It occurred to us that the way people scroll through their social media feeds is very similar to a classic method psychologists use to measure people’s ability to pay attention. When we mindlessly browse social media, we are rapidly presenting a stream of verbal stimuli to ourselves. Psychologists have been studying this issue in the lab for decades, displaying to subjects a rapid succession of words, one after another, in the blink of an eye. In the lab, people are asked to find a target word among a collection of other words. Once they find it, there’s a short window of time in which that word captures their attention. If there’s a second target word in that window, most people don’t even see it—almost as if they had blinked with their eyes open.

There is an exception: if the second target word is emotionally significant to the viewer, that person will see it. Some words are so important to us that they are able to capture our attention even when we are already paying attention to something else.

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