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Apr 14 2009

Twitter will send you to hell!

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Okay, a recent article reports that a group of social scientists have conducted a study that suggests that Twitter (and other Social websites, to be fair) can blunt your moral sense.

My first reaction was <pft>! But the more I thought about it, and the more I saw other people reacting to it with comments such as calling the scientists "silly", "stupid" or saying that the notion was "ridiculous" the more I thought that perhaps the scientists were onto something.

Information comes at us at a rate that is nearly impossible to process. I say nearly, because obviously we do, but how well we process it is what is being examined here. I am prepared to accept on face value their assertion that "it takes longer to activate processing of social emotions such as admiration and compassion" versus "the brain can respond in fractions of seconds to signs of physical pain in others." there are good reasons for this. Reacting to pain in others is a survival trait. If you watch one of your hunting party get eaten, you need to be able to react to that or else you will get eaten too. Same thing goes for realizing that your babies are in danger.

Praise and compassion, on the other hand are secondary to your need to survive. They increase your survival chances by investing others in your long-term well-being but they don't save your skin like your own reflexes.

This is why most people when nervous or put on the spot act "defensively" with anger or aggression. Later, after they calm down they may use humor or an apology to smooth things over. On Twitter, you see it often. Someone makes an assertion, three people knee-jerk react to it, someone makes a counter assertion, then people take sides. Things flit back and forth until the matter is decided and then that becomes the prevailing trend.

I'll refer you to the tags #amazonfail and #teaparty as I write this to see this in action. The truth is that that speed that we absorb information reduces the amount of time we have to process it. We develop filters to help us process it more efficiently, yes, but then we just process more. And, it then follows, that having less time to consider each info-nugget we will then rely on instinctual reactions. This means that we will not properly weigh the emotional and (as the scientists assert) moral implications of our decision.

For myself I think we will find new ways to consider information. I, long ago, started to process information as a stream, letting me see a trend or looking for places where the stream deviated from the expected pattern. It is a way of processing information in parallel (many things at once) as opposed to serial (one thing at a time). It means that I miss details (often!) but if I need detail becasue I have spoted seomthing that does not fit the stream then I go back and seek it. It means I spend less time reading and reacting than just taking it in. I don't judge things as they arrive, but I let them arrive free of critical thought and when things "splash" (so to speak) in the stream then I investigate.

The brain is a marvelously adaptive organ and it processes information without conscience effort. Very often I find that wen i 've gone back to see what was hitting my brain that I already know more about it than I thought (thanks to the filing and categorizing that goes on the background of my brain). Connections get mad, opinions get formed, and judgment is rendered at that time. I find that I have sometimes been thinking about things without being aware of it.

So, for my money, they (the scientists) have a point in that people (children particularly) need more time to make decisions on information. But, at the same time, they need the skills to gather, weigh, consider, categorize and file information into useful decision-making trees and then learn how to act on that information after they have done that and not to just "fire from the hip".