On Twitter messages that appeal to emotions are more successful in making people lose their minds.

A new study shows that not only do we feel more driven to share tweets, but also the words that refer to emotions and morals capture our attention more than neutral ones.

The work of psychologists Ana P. Gantman, William J. Brady and Jay Van Bavel shows that the terms that appeal to what we think is right or wrong “are particularly effective in capturing our attention.”

This, as they write in an article published in the journal Scientific American, “could help explain the new political reality.”

In the first experiment of their work, participants were shown fictional tweets with different types of words used as hashtags: those related to morality, emotion or both at once caught more attention than neutral ones.

In addition to that, they also examined almost 50,000 real tweets on three topics: gun control, same-sex marriage and climate change.

The most shared also tended to include emotional and moral terms. In fact and according to another previous study by the same authors, it is at least 20% more likely to share a tweet if it contains a word of this kind.

Of course, the authors warn that this is not the only reason that would explain the success of a publication.

For example, the fact that it is being widely shared and already popular could make its success increase even more.

It is easier for social media users to get angry

The role of emotions in social networks was already known, although that has not prevented them from being used to manipulate people with hoaxes, hyper-partisan political messages and provocations.

Jonah Berger, a professor at the University of Pennsylvania, already explained in his book Contagious, 2013, that the emotions that drive us to share content on the Internet are linked to amazement.

It may already be on the negative side, such as outrage over a reprehensible fact that surprises us, as in its positive aspect, such as humor.

American neuroscientist M. J. Crockett recently reviewed the latest studies on Nature Human Behavior, remembering that in social networks we find more actions that we find objectionable than in person.

Maybe one day we see a neighbor who does not recycle or verify with annoyance that the mayor has put on another chaotic roundabout, but in social networks we can find many errors and faults from anywhere in the world without even moving from the sofa.

In addition, it is easier to show our outrage: we do not have to face our neighbor, demonstrate in the streets or write an angry letter to the editor of the newspaper. All we have to do is just retweet to place a comment.

All this does not have to be negative: public outrage also has benefits for society, by allowing everyone to punish or at least recriminate behavior censored by the majority, in addition to strengthening our adherence to a cause or social group with which we feel identified.

But it has risks, as Crockett points out; at least three: 

First, the possibility that our participation in civic and social movements will be less significant.

We no longer need to cooperate as volunteers or make donations, we are satisfied with just tweeting.

Second, the bar of indignation is also lowered: as indignation is easy, there may come a point where we do not distinguish between real offenses and things that are only unpleasant to us.

Third, our opinions tend to polarize. Social networks themselves allow us to group together in echo chambers with similar audiences, or, as psychologist Jonathan Haidt writes in The Mind of the Righteous, we join “political teams that share moral narratives.”

In the end we get used to addressing an audience with which we agree, looking above all for “reputational rewards” or, in Berger’s words, “social currency.” That is, we want to earn points with ours, but not start a conversation.

This makes the exchange of opinions with people who think differently to be mediated by other members of the group.

Consequently, we run the risk of seeing others as evil or stupid people instead of simply as people who think that there is another way of doing things that does not match what we consider more appropriate.

In addition, these mechanics make us more vulnerable to manipulation: it is easy to provoke a wave of indignation with the aim of promoting a polarization that the politician or group on duty considers beneficial to their interests. 

Can this be avoided?

The picture seems bleak, but study authors point out a couple of clues that offer some optimism.

From the outset, although attention is often paid to indignation and manipulation, because of the danger they pose, both negative and positive emotions move us. 

The experiment offered labels or key words that trigger people on all sides of the political and ideological spectrum. 

In fact, in their article they put the real example of the dissemination of the  term lovewins hashtag in 2015: the day on which the United States legalized gay marriage in its 50 states, the label added more than 2.5 million messages on Twitter.

A second key is that understanding how emotions motivate us can help us pause a few seconds before sharing or tweeting certain content.

In a similar way, Chris Wetherell, the designer of the retweet button on Twitter, introduced in 2009, recently spoke of this innovation, stating that “maybe we gave a loaded gun to a 4-year-old boy.”

In its editorial in the September issue Scientific American suggests imagining that next to the retweet button there is a pause button. Clicking on it could help us think if we are responding to a tweet that only wants to generate noise, if it is worth reading the article and not just being the owner, or if we only want to look good before our friends and followers, showing it to them.

Social media platforms have not developed less harmful tools because it goes against the very essence of their business. The more content we publish or share, the better for them.

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