How the Internet Warps Human Morality

Summary: A new study explores the impact of the internet on human morality, highlighting how evolved responses like compassion and the urge to punish are distorted online. The internet’s constant stream of extreme stimuli leads to compassion fatigue, public shaming, and virtue signaling.

These phenomena occur as empathy becomes overtaxed and punishment is easily dispensed in a cost-free, virtual environment. The authors advocate for research into better platform design and increased transparency of algorithms.

Key Facts:

  1. The internet causes compassion fatigue by overloading empathy with constant news.
  2. Public shaming is rampant online due to easy, cost-free punishment mechanisms.
  3. The authors call for research on platform design to mitigate negative impacts.

Source: NYU

In a Review article, Claire Robertson and colleagues explore how human morality, which evolved in the context of small in-person groups, functions on the internet with over five billion users.

Evolved human responses, such as compassion for victims and urges to punish transgressors, operate differently online, the authors argue.

The internet exposes users to large quantities of extreme morally relevant stimuli in the form of 24-hour news and intentionally outrageous content from sometimes physically distant locations.

Subjecting human brains to this new morally oversaturated environment has caused compassion fatigue, public shaming, ineffective collective action and virtue signaling, according to the authors.

Compassion fatigue arises because empathy is a costly cognitive resource, easily overtaxed by the demands of round-the-clock information about suffering.

Public shaming arises because the internet makes it all too easy for very large numbers of people to indulge in the universal human desire to punish wrongdoers, thought to be an evolved adaptation to living in groups—but small groups.

As posting a condemnation is nearly costless, it becomes a tempting way to signal moral virtue and group membership.

Real aid may in some cases be replaced by non-costly forms of compassion, such as “liking” or “sharing” a post, which does little to help but makes people feel they have fulfilled their moral responsibilities.

In addition, the ease of organizing online leads to massive—but ephemeral—social movements with shallow roots and little staying power.

The authors call for research into platform design features that sustain attention or engagement without inducing negative externalities on individuals and society, and for greater public access to platform algorithms so that research can proceed.

About this psychology and morality research news

Author: Claire Robertson
Source: NYU
Contact: Claire Robertson – NY

Original Research: Open access.
Morality in the anthropocene: The perversion of compassion and punishment in the online world” by Claire Robertson et al. PNAS Nexus


Morality in the anthropocene: The perversion of compassion and punishment in the online world

Although much of human morality evolved in an environment of small group living, almost 6 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.