Does Controversial "Twitter Immorality" Study Even Mention Twitter?

By April 15, 2009

Yesterday was an odd day for social media news, from a “gas-detecting Twitter chair” to Domino's employees getting fired after posting YouTube videos of themselves making sandwiches with ingredients they’d stuck up their noses. There was also a minor controversy after a report detailing a study by University of Southern California neuroscientists who are researching the brain’s response to inspirational emotions was published, which begat a series of “Twitter Leads to Immorality” ripostes and reposts. The story was broken by, in an article titled “Tweet this: Rapid-fire media may confuse your moral compass.” Despite the title, there’s scant mention of Twitter, or anything social media, in the article. The study found that while the human brain responds very quickly to the sign of physical pain in others, it takes much longer for it to recognize the “social emotions” of admiration and


"For some kinds of thought, especially moral decision-making about other people's social and psychological situations, we need to allow for adequate time and reflection," said one of the report’s authors, Mary Helen Immordino-Yang.

"If things are happening too fast, you may not ever fully experience emotions about other people's psychological states and that would have implications for your morality," Immordino-Yang said.

This led USC media scholar Manuel Castells to say, "Damasio's study has extraordinary implications for the human perception of events in a digital communication environment."

But Castells’ targets were the tired and true: TV and video game violence.

It was Castells’ comments on the study that brought media into the discussion. It was his comments that prompted the only mention of media culpability by any of the researchers, Antonio Damasio, director of the Brain and Creativity Institute at the University of Southern California.

And he only mentioned the news.

Immordino-Yang placed no blame on the media. "It's not about what tools you have, it's about how you use those tools," she said.

The report will not be published until next week’s Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, so we have no idea what the researchers really said. But from their quotes in the article, the social media accretion added to their study appears to have been the result of the article’s title and Castells commentary.

We’ll find out next week.

Perhaps was just trying to drum up some controversy, fling fighting words Twitter’s way. It worked, and several writers took the bait, their article titles making it look like Nietzsche had birthed Twitter from his brow.

What’s too bad about the controversy du jour is that it took the focus off some fascinating research, as this is one of the first studies to use brain imaging to study emotions. But at the same time, maybe it added to physorg’s readership (the article stayed on Techmeme most of the day), which to me is a good thing, because it’s one of my favorite science sites.

Maybe all this time spent online HAS put a magnet to my moral compass.

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