Many social media users will go to great lengths to get "likes," whether it's spending hours to create a meme or uploading a profile picture from an exotic locale. But what if others' opinions on social media could have far more important consequences?

A team of five faculty and students at the Moral Attitudes and Decision-Making Lab investigated the effect of social media on judgment and conformity. Led by Walter Sinnott-Armstrong, Chauncey Stillman professor of practical ethics, the researchers concluded that social media can play a significant role in shaping how users view a controversial question. 

“More and more political and moral dialogue and discourse is moving away from face-to-face interaction to this more detached, anonymous contact,” said Vladimir Chituc, an associate in research who worked on the study.

In the first portion of the two-part study, which was published in the journal Social Influence, the researchers focused on social media’s addictive “likes” feature to see how participants were influenced by the popularity of a certain viewpoint. To mimic how the number of "likes" on a post may affect a person's reasoning, the study asked participants to rate an ethical dilemma but gave them information on how others had categorized the dilemma.

“We want to replicate the things you see on social media,” Chituc said.

One dilemma they tested was a family eating a dog that was killed in front of their house. They found that the statistical information about how others responded, or “likes,” did induce conformity in the participants, confirming their initial hypothesis.

In the second part of the study, the researchers compared the effects of rational and emotional arguments, hypothesizing that emotional reasoning would be more effective in leading to conformity. However, they found that rational arguments were actually more successful in influencing the study participants' opinions. 

The study noted that because most social interactions happen online, more discussions about morality and politics occur in a digital environment as well. The disparity between what researchers expected and observed opens the door to a novel discussion about how a relatively detached and impersonal environment such as social media can affect decision-making.  

Lawrence Ngo, a graduate student in the Huettel Laboratory and research assistant for the study, thought that the lack of facial expressions and nonverbal cues could account for the ineffectiveness of emotional reasoning.

Ngo noted that a big-picture goal of his team’s study and future research was to investigate the factors that “promote productive discourse—whether it is political, moral, or otherwise.”