By Emma Young
What is it about social media that makes discussions about controversial topics so caustic and unpleasant? A variety of reasons have been put forward — such as the tendency for outrage to self-perpetuate, as we reported earlier this week. But now a new study, published in PLoS One, implicates a concept so far explored in philosophy rather than psychology. This is “moral grandstanding” — publicly opining on morality and politics to impress others, and so to seek social status.
To engage in moral grandstanding, it’s the motivation behind the comments or statements that really matters: the individual is seeking to gain status, rather than simply to express their sincerely-held beliefs. Moral grandstanding can take many forms, the researchers write: “in a quest to impress peers, someone may trump up moral charges, pile on in cases of public shaming, announce that anyone who disagrees with them is obviously wrong, or exaggerate emotional displays in taking ideological positions.” They may also ramp up the situation, seeking to out-do others in their outrage. This concern with increasing one’s influence, rank or social status is, of course, a common characteristic of discourse on social media.
Given its relationship with status-seeking, Joshua Grubbs at Bowling Green State University and colleagues figured that moral grandstanding should also be amenable to examination as a psychological phenomenon. They hypothesised that it would be characterised by strivings for dominance or prestige, and may be associated with personality traits related to status-seeking, such as narcissism.
The team first designed a questionnaire to assess dominance- and prestige-seeking as sub-scales of “moral grandstanding motivations”. The ultimate short-form, 10-item scale asks participants the extent to which they agree or disagree (on a 7-point scale) with statements including “My moral/political beliefs should be inspiring to others” (relating to prestige) and “I share my moral/political beliefs to make people who disagree with me feel bad” (relating to dominance).
In the first three studies — two on groups of students, and one on a nationally representative group of more than 1,000 US participants — the team administered their scale, plus a battery of other tests, including personality tests, questions about political affiliation and measures of the participants’ experience of political or moral conflict (whether — and how often — they’d experienced conflict in the home or got into fights on social media, for example, because of their political and moral beliefs).
They found consistent results. Higher scores on prestige-seeking were associated with narcissistic extraversion and extraversion more generally, while the dominance aspects were strongly associated with narcissistic antagonism (a willingness to exploit others for personal gains), and related to lower conscientiousness, agreeableness and openness.
Political ideology had no relationship with moral grandstanding scores. But higher scores on both sub-scales did correlate with greater reported conflict with people holding different political and moral views (and this wasn’t simply because of differences in participants’ personality traits).
A further, month-long study provided preliminary evidence that individual differences in moral grandstanding are relatively stable over time. In this study, the team also found evidence that while dominance-related motivations predicted conflict with people with differing views on political and moral issues, prestige-seekers reported growing closer to other people with the same views.
A final study of 1,776 US adults revealed that both prestige- and dominance-strivings were associated with more self-reported social media behaviours consistent with grandstanding — re-posting something that a participant disagreed with to make fun of it, or reposting something that they agreed with to make themselves look good, for example.
“Collectively, these findings provide support for an account of moral grandstanding that conceptualises it as a status-seeking behaviour that is driven by status-seeking motives,” and that could explain some of the problems with social discourse, especially on social media, the team writes.
The researchers do acknowledge limitations to their study. It relied on self-reports of conflicts and social media behaviour, for example. More work should now be done to build on the preliminary evidence, they argue, in part because of the urgent need to understand the potential real-world implications. “The long-term implications of grandstanding are not yet known,” they write, “though, should philosophical speculation hold true, it is likely that this phenomenon is associated with polarisation and break-downs in effective communication, particularly with outgroup members or in-group members whom one perceives as a rival.”