How do people determine right from wrong?

“How do people determine right from wrong?”  How do you determine right from wrong?

Do you follow a moral code that came from your parents?  A religious leader?  Something you learned in school?  From a book that you read or speech that you heard?

Social science research “suggests that people, to a significant degree, derive their sense of right and wrong from social cues.”  “People form their own morality … according, in part, to what they think the people around them believe.”

One piece of relevant research focused on school bullying; “how middle school students determine whether bullying is or is not morally acceptable.”

The researchers found that individual students used “social referrents” as a shortcut to make their decision about bullying behavior–that is, “people to whom they paid special attention in determining right or wrong.”  Students focused “on a few individuals whom [they] perceive to be influential.”  And, those people, like it or not, then become influential.  Those people are often other students but could also be teachers, administrators, coaches, or anyone in the students’ environment.

The researchers then focused on “interventions”–something that individuals who were not the social referrents could do to alter the situation.  In the case of the school bullying, the social networks in the schools were “mapped out” and then shuffled around in order to change the people serving as the social referrents.

Did this work?  Yes, “disciplinary reports of student conflict at treatment schools were reduced by 30% over 1 year.”  “Rearranging an existing bunch of kids can change where those kids look to set their internal rules for behavior–which can, in turn, change the social norms in their school.”

There are many studies like this one–looking at setting norms for behavior in many situations, not just with kids in school.

So, what does this mean for social media and morality?  Social media replaces “our traditional person-to-person social networks with artificial, algorithm-driven networks” focused on profit.  Is social media better or worse as a way for people to test their social referrents as a barometer for determining internal morality?  Could Facebook, Twitter, etc. “disrupt the processes by which we determine right from wrong?”  “How would that change our morality?”

No firm answers yet; research is ongoing.  Meanwhile, all of us who use social media are, like it or not, part of a great unintended, uncontrolled social experiment.  Think about that …

Read the article (Max Fisher and Amanda Taub, New York Times, August 3, 2018).

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