The rise and subsequent spread of the internet has made exposure to news items a ubiquitous part of life. Social news describes information related to real-life interactions, and is naturally expected to influence a person’s behavior. Literature exists that examines the effects of social news delivered through traditional mediums like radio and television, but less is known about how the process is impacted by the modern environment of pervasive, internet-based systems.
An article by Ziqing Yao and Rongjun Yu, published in the June 2016 issue of PLoS ONE, describes two experiments that show how social news can influence behavior in different ways depending on its valence (positivity vs negativity) and the setting in which the behavior takes place.
In the first experiment, 64 undergraduates (57 females) watched a trio of social news videos obtained from the internet. They were divided into three groups. The first watched one of three clips with positive news, another viewed one of three negative videos and the third saw one of three neutral items. Each participant then took part in a computer task called the prisoner’s dilemma, which was designed to establish a social-interaction setting by making users believe they were paired with a human in another location.
Some parts of the game required subjects to choose to either cooperate with the “other person” or not (defection). Defection was chosen less often by those in the positive news group than others, possibly indicating a reluctance to participate in anti-social behavior. No other significant effects were observed.
The second study included 63 students (54 females) and was identical in design to the first except for the task that was performed following the videos. The new test required participants to choose a small picture from multiple choices that would best complete a larger image. They were informed that there was an option to cheat, as the correct answer would be displayed on the screen unless they pressed the space bar first to cancel it, but they were not encouraged use the strategy, as it was still considered cheating.
Reaction times were measured in cases where the space bar was used to gauge relative resistance to cheating. This setting was considered to be a moral test rather than social, since it did not involve the portrayed participation of another person.
Cheating rates were significantly higher after negative social news in comparison to other types of media, while no other effects were seen. Taken together, these experiments suggest that positive social news can impact social behaviors but not moral choices, while the opposite is true for negative social information.
“Taken together, the results suggest that in the positive social news condition, kindness and providing help are the most salient contents–these prime conventional norms mean more altruistic behaviors as well as a greater tolerance for opponents defecting during the prisoner’s dilemma game. In the negative social news condition, harm towards innocent people and unethical behavior are signs of rule violations and lower moral levels. This leads to a greater propensity to break the rules and cheat,” the authors of the study explained.