Some said yes, while others said no, she was guilty only of flouting social conventions. What is interesting is what happened when Haidt and his interviewers pressed the people who did say the woman did something morally wrong to explain why. While the people were quick to condemn the woman’s action, they struggled to provide an explanation.
A patriotic neighbor
One said that the woman herself might feel guilty, so it was bad. Another that a presumably patriotic neighbor might have seen her do it, and get upset—even though, Haidt points out, the story explicitly states that nobody saw the woman cut up the flag. When the interviewers themselves pointed this out, most did not give up trying to prove the woman did something wrong. “I know it’s wrong, I just can’t think of a reason why,” Haidt quotes one as saying.
This means that people holding particularly partisan views (say, “liberals” and “conservatives” in American politics) can’t ever convince each other of anything. Our underlying moral frameworks are radically different, based on emotion (or rather, intuition) and not reason.
How does this tie into toxic behavior on social media? One of the many studies Haidt cites may offer a pointer.
In 2004, psychologist Drew Westen scanned the brains of self-identified Democrats and Republicans. He first showed them footage of Republican presidential candidate George W. Bush in 2000 praising Ken Lay, CEO of Enron, the energy company that later became a byword for corporate fraud.
But he then showed them something else—that Bush was later shocked by the Enron scandal and regretted misjudging Lay. He carried out a similar exercise using the Democratic candidate John Kerry.
When Republican supporters saw the first Bush clip, the areas of their brain relating to negative emotions and punishments lit up.
Rise of the uncomfortable situation
They felt uncomfortable, maybe even pained. When they found out that Bush didn’t support Lay, after all, the reward centers of their brains lit up, with a hit of a neurotransmitter called dopamine. The same thing happened with Democrats and John Kerry.
Dopamine can trigger a sense of pleasure. It’s what makes us feel good when we do something and get a reward. It’s also how drugs like cocaine work. If true, Westen’s findings “would explain why partisans are so stubborn, closed-minded and committed to beliefs that often seem bizarre or paranoid…Extreme partisanship may be literally addictive,” writes Haidt.
The dopamine response is also what social media counts on to keep you interested. “BUMMER is neither liberal nor conservative; it is just pro-paranoia, pro-irritability, and pro–general assholeness,” writes Lanier. This can only change if social media companies change the way they earn money—i.e. by selling the ability to manipulate users’ behavior to the highest bidder.
And that, he says, can only happen if you quit social media right now. Forcing Silicon Valley companies to find a new business model, one that doesn’t rely on intrusive advertising, tracking and the sale of user data.
He likens the industry today to lead paint. “When it became undeniable that lead was harmful, no one declared that houses should never be painted again. Instead, after pressure and legislation, lead-free paints became the new standard.
Smart people simply waited to buy paint until there was a safe version on sale. Similarly, smart people should delete their accounts until non-toxic varieties are available.”
But the smart people also say, what about the fear of missing out? Or FOMO. Many people just want to be clued in so that they don’t miss out. “It’s real,” says John. “I still use Nuzzel to aggregate links from my Twitter timeline and deliver them to me. If I were honest with myself, I do that because of FOMO. There is nothing in the last few years that has made me think, ‘Damn. I am so glad I still get these links.’”