Virtues, Values, and Moral Bullying

Critical thinking in social media psychology.

Posted Oct 02, 2017

During my undergraduate, my favorite topic of study was social psychology. To me, it was an amazing blend of behaviorism and cognitive psychology, investigating how and why we act and think in relation to ourselves and the social world. I had finished my undergrad just before the social media boom hit in the late 2000s. As I use social media now, I find that old interest in social psychology stimulated. I observe the online behavior of others, as well as my own, and I ask myself questions about the how and why behind our thinking and actions. Many of these phenomena seem similar to those in "real-world" situations, but perhaps more abundant and/or extreme. Though many of the explanations are the same, nevertheless, I believe the new field of "social media psychology" (i.e., distinct from cyberpsychology) will become a major focus of research in the coming years.     

One particular social media behavior that has caught my attention, over the past year or so, is "virtue-signaling." A term originating within signaling theory, virtue-signaling denotes a behavior, often costly or unpleasant to the individual conducting it, which represents a commitment to a belief system, such as religion (e.g., fasting). However, the term has received quite a deal of press in the past couple of years with a new, often negative, connotation. In its new context, there is no consensus conceptualisation of the term; but it is usually used to describe publicly expressing (often through social media activity) opinions or values to demonstrate one’s good character or moral correctness with the (implicit or explicit) intent of enhancing social standing. The negative connotation derives from the benefits of such action; that is, being rewarded through enhanced social standing without high cost (e.g., showing support for a social cause by applying a filter to a Facebook profile picture). In "traditional" social psychology, this action can be viewed as a function of social desirability, impression management and/or ingratiation; but it is also, in some cases, a function of false consensus.

Virtue-signaling? Ugh. What a terrible use of the phrase. The implication is that the person signaling is actually expressing a virtue. However, if an individual posts an article supporting a particular view, though they may receive a large deal of support through likes, shares, retweets, and reactions, it does not mean that the opinion or perspective is virtuous to everyone, let alone "correct" (e.g., being pro-life as opposed to pro-choice). The assumption is that (a majority of) people share the same perspective (this is where false consensus comes into play) even when they may not. But likes, shares and retweets do not always come. What is virtuous to one may not be the commonly shared perspective that they assume. As a result, I would argue a more accurate phrase would be value-signaling (i.e., the ‘signaling’ of material that the signaler values) because it does not require others to hold the perspective dear or even agree with it for it to be of some value (to the signaler at least). To be valuable, it only requires one to value it. On the other hand, to be virtuous, which holds a more "absolute" connotation, implies that the perspective is globally accepted. This is potentially dangerous because such connotations may facilitate emotion-based (anti-critical thinking) social media actions, for example, responses that ridicule, shame and bully those who disagree. 

Writing this post, I recall a comment left on one of my previous posts, "Faking It," which read:

“In the U.S. at least, a student offering [critical thinking] that may go against the Stalinist PC [i.e. political correctness]/SJW [social justice warrior] propaganda model on university campuses is academic suicide. Why put a grade at risk for something that you believe in? Intellectual integrity is passé.”

I think it’s a genuine shame that some individuals feel that they cannot practice intellectual integrity, through critical thinking, without the fear of being chastised by peers or even by educators. I do not know how widespread this propaganda model is on U.S. university campuses (though this is not the first time I have encountered this proposition as a cause for concern); however, I am aware of the value signaling of topics like "social justice" in social media circles.

Similar to this comment, why would someone on a social media site risk being ridiculed (e.g. being unfairly referred to as a GMO "shill," a pro-Illuminati "troll," whatever-phobic, something-ist) in a public forum for supporting an ‘unpopular’ perspective, even though they have critically thought about it? In the grand scheme of things, social media action or inaction is not important. Sometimes, it’s just not worth liking, sharing or retweeting, even though you actually agree and support the perspective. This inaction can be viewed as a fairly conscientious move. But, what do you think happens when unpopular, though logically considered, perspectives are silenced or ignored? Simply, the emotion-driven and misinformed positions take center-stage; and because there is little if any, opposition (e.g., see the Burden of Proof Fallacy in my last post), given the rationale above, social media users begin to believe that the observable position is the only (e.g., virtuous) position. Thus, the sharing and retweeting starts again and a social media echo chamber is supported. 

The problem with critical thinking in social media is that quite often, it just doesn’t exist. People, be they social justice warriors, conspiracy theorists or science deniers, fall prey to posting and sharing their values without any critical thought behind it. Whether it’s posted based on emotion, misinformation or some bastardized view of "research" (e.g. googling a topic and confirmation-biased cherry-picking only ‘perspectives’ that support their view), if the individual values it enough, it will be posted. If you disagree with a perspective and try to engage it with critical thought through diplomatic debate, it seems rather likely that you will be ridiculed in a manner similar to that above.                                                                                

I respect the opinion expressed in the comment above and to a large extent, I agree with it. When I teach Critical Thinking and, likewise, Social Psychology, I advise students that if we truly care about the outcomes of our decisions and the manner in which we solve problems, we will sometimes need to engage and consider material that is controversial. We need to play Devil’s Advocate to truly see "both sides of the story," even if it may make us uncomfortable. For example, firearm aficionados should consider the arguments on gun control, and vice versa, to better understand the debate. I can feel some of you squirm as you read this.

If we truly care about a topic and wish to learn more about it for purposes of drawing a reasonable conclusion or reaching a logical solution, we must be open-minded to other perspectives and leave our emotions behind. Critical thinking requires that affect is left at the door before entering a dialogue. A large body of research indicates that emotion influences thinking (e.g., the affect heuristic [Kahneman & Frederick, 2002] and automatic affective valuation [Kahneman, Ritov & Schkade, 1999]), most often in a negative manner. A real life example of this occurred in my class room. I used to provide a simple argument example to students to teach them the critical thinking skill of analysis: “Dogs are man’s best friend”—an old adage based on common belief. One day in class, a student raised her hand and complained, claiming that it was wrong of me to suggest such a thing–dogs could just as easily be woman’s best friend. I explained that I agreed, but "woman" would be included in this context, as "man" is referring to "mankind" as opposed to specifically males. The student responded that she didn’t care what was intended or implied, that it was sexist against women and should be amended at once, perhaps to “Dogs are people’s best friend." I have since done as she asked and amended the exercise; but not for the reason she gave, rather, as a reminder—that being, if we want to be able to think critically, we must remove our emotions from our thinking.

Similar examples have popped up in the news recently, particularly issues regarding free speech; for example, the banning of Prof. Richard Dawkins from some U.S. radio stations and public speaking events, as well as the protesting and institutional formal warning of Prof. Jordan Peterson, both for statements (well-considered positions based on their extensive research) that ‘offended’ certain individuals and their associated social groups. To me, it seems illogical that attempting to promote people’s rights should come at the cost of restricting people’s rights; but nevertheless, individuals are entitled to their opinions and they are certainly entitled to be offended. However, being offended (i.e. an emotionally-charged stance) doesn’t entitle the offended to being accommodated as if they were morally superior or even factually correct.

In social media contexts, it often seems that the offended come across as virtuous, oppressed victims, simply because there is opposition to their opinion (which in fairness, may too have garnered support through virtue/value-signaling). However, it is far from virtuous to force emotion-based opinions of virtue/value on to others who do not subscribe to the same ideology – it’s both bullying and a sure sign of cognitive dissonance. For these reasons, critical thinking, or a lack thereof, jumps out at me as a primary factor.

In conclusion, values are unique to each and every individual. Though individuals can certainly share values, there is no guarantee that all of an individual’s values overlap with another’s. Nevertheless, everyone is entitled to their values, whether or not you agree with them. This is also true of opinions - everyone has one, regardless of whether or not you agree with it. On the other hand, using the virtue moniker implies that the individual is right based on some kind of ‘moral correctness’. Perhaps the reason why the term virtue-signaling has persisted as long as it has, unfortunately, is because many buy into its connotation of moral correctness/superiority. Nevertheless, the trend of virtue (or value) signaling seems to be growing in social media usage. Though there is nothing wrong with an individual presenting ideas and perspectives that they value, it is ill-conceived and dangerous to treat them as global virtues that everyone else should value too. When they are treated as such, they are generally emotion-based (the opposition of reason) and unlikely to have formed based on critical thinking. Though many individuals self-regulate their actions on social media (e.g. choosing not to post or share), regardless of their views, it is still important for them not to be swayed by ‘whoever shouts loudest’. Again, I do look forward to the developing field of ‘social media psychology’ in the coming years. I just hope the study of critical thinking in these settings becomes a major focus.    


Kahneman, D. & Frederick, S. (2002). Representativeness revisited: Attribute substitution in intuitive judgment. In T. Gilovich, D. Griffin & D. Kahneman (Eds), Heuristics and Biases: The Psychology of Intuitive Judgment, 49-81. New York: Cambridge University Press.

Kahneman, D., Ritov, I., & Schkade, D. (1999). Economic preferences, or attitude expressions? An analysis of dollar responses to public issues. Journal of Risk & Uncertainty, 19, 1-3, 203-235.