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A Look at William Brady’s Research on Moral Contagion

Image of colored word bubbles overlapping and the words "Moral Contagion"

William Brady headshotWilliam Brady, a winner of last year’s Heritage Dissertation Award, was interested in using a variety of methods while working on his research on moral contagion.

Brady said that he really wanted to “step out of the lab” with his research and see how people express emotions within social networks, and what makes moral and political ideas most likely to spread to others.

He still wanted to conduct in-lab research to complement information from work outside the lab, though, and he used funds from the Heritage Dissertation Award to do so.

Brady, who is in his last year as a doctoral student at New York University, used the funds to pay participants in lab studies and purchase equipment that otherwise might have been too expensive.

“I think (funds from the award) can be really helpful for students who might have the ideas, but not the resources, especially for equipment that is more expensive,” Brady said.

Such equipment include measurements of how emotional responses are expressed physiologically. These measurements are important to Brady’s research, as he considers how people’s sense of morality is intertwined with emotion.

Brady’s Research on Moral Contagion within Social Networks

“I’ve always been interested in moral psychology,” he said.

Specific emotions are often tied to specific functional outcomes - for example, moral outrage is often tied to punishment.

Brady and his collaborators decided to start studying social networks because he said this was the place to see how morality and emotion are expressed during real discourse on a large scale. This is not something “often studied” in psychology because studies are typically lab-based, Brady said.

Brady’s research looked at conversations on hot-button topics such as gun control, same-sex marriage and climate change.

“We looked at that because in 2015, these were hotly debated and at the forefront at debates about policy - and to some extent still are,” he said.

Two broader social networks Brady and his collaborators tapped into were liberal and conservative ones. Using Twitter, Brady looked at what people were retweeting based on these topics to measure their level of engagement. One main takeaway was that the expression of moral emotions was a good predictor of engagement.

Expressing moral emotions helped spread information through “in-groups,” such as when liberals would converse with liberals, or conservatives with other conservatives. However, for the majority of topics, this effect was dampened for outgroup members.

“It has the potential to create an echo chamber, or ideological bubble,” Brady said. “People tend to follow or retweet people who are more like them, and the expression of moral emotion appears to exacerbate this general tendency.”

For people who do not necessarily maintain the same viewpoint as ones expressed in the tweets, expressing ideas in an emotional way made it less likely for them to engage with these ideas.

“If your goal is to try to spread (information) broadly among people who share a different viewpoint in order to convince them, (using moral emotions) is not necessarily the best strategy,” Brady said.

This research only becomes more relevant as technology increases and people start receiving and giving information in a more digital - and political - age.

“Especially with young people, ages 18-24, a majority of their news and information comes from social media,” Brady said. “We’re starting to study different variables that affect how people are going to be consuming this news, especially when it comes to news relevant to political or moral beliefs.”


About the Heritage Dissertation Awards

These awards provide $1,000 grants to assist with the costs of conducting dissertation research. At least two grants are awarded in personality psychology, and at least two grants are awarded in social psychology each year.

The awards are for full-time students conducting dissertation research in any area of social or personality psychology, and who have already had their proposals approved by their dissertation committees.

Learn more or apply for a 2017 award by October 15, 2017.

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