Have you ever gotten into a furious row on Twitter, Reddit, or Facebook? Maybe you’ll get into a debate with fellow Internet-goers beneath this very article. According to new research, it appears that arguments are so common on social media because other people become “dehumanized”, and it’s much easier to be persuaded of someone’s opinion when you see or hear them speak out loud.
A team of researchers from the University of California Berkley (UCB) and the University of Chicago set out to determine how the presentation of someone’s argument can affect others’ perceptions. They published their findings in the journal Psychological Science.
They recruited 300 people who either read, listened to, or watched someone making an argument. The arguers covered topics from war and abortion to genres of music. The participants were then asked how well they thought the argument had been communicated.
Sure enough, those who listened to or watched a person communicating an argument they disagreed with were less likely to dehumanize that person compared to when they read it.
The researchers also say that speech can signal someone’s mental capacity. Therefore, those who saw or heard an argument were much less likely to think of the communicator as “having a diminished capacity to either think or feel”. It seems we respect someone’s opinion much more when we can appreciate that the owner is both human and intelligent, not just an anonymous creator of some online text.
“One of us read a speech excerpt that was printed in a newspaper from a politician with whom he strongly disagreed,” study author Juliana Schroeder from UCB told The Washington Post.
“The next week, he heard the exact same speech clip playing on a radio station. He was shocked by how different his reaction was toward the politician when he read the excerpt compared to when he heard it. When he read the statement, the politician seemed idiotic, but when he heard it spoken, the politician actually sounded reasonable.”
Therefore, reading someone’s argument on social media makes you much more likely to dismiss it and fight your corner than if you listen to them speak. According to the study’s authors: “These results suggest that the medium through which people communicate may systematically influence the impressions they form of each other. The tendency to denigrate the minds of the opposition may be tempered by giving them, quite literally, a voice.”
It is no secret that in recent times political views have become more and more polarized and extreme. The researchers think this might be related to how we source our information, although research from earlier this year points out that social media cannot be blamed as the main cause.
“Many people receive the majority of their news from social media now,” explained Schroeder. “This can be dehumanizing, and may increase polarization. It’s easy to imagine how this could become cyclical; dehumanization leading to more polarization leading to more dehumanization.”
So next time you feel the urge to angrily reply to someone’s comment on social media, take a deep breath and imagine someone you know saying it to you, because it might make it seem just a tad more human.