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If Your Friends Jumped Off a Cliff...

Barbara Ruland, SIOP Communications Specialist

Study Shows the Power of Social Media Over Ethical Perceptions

Throughout history, parents have been asking their children variations of the question, “If all your friends jumped off a cliff, would you jump off too?”

Researchers explored that time-honored question in the context of social media and ethics for a study that generated a lot of interest when presented at the 2017 Conference of the Society for Industrial and Organizational Psychology in Orlando, Florida.

Social media use continues to grow, both in terms of use and influence. According to the Pew Research Center, 69% of Americans use some type of social media. Their 2016 study of social media in the workplace reports that many US workers are using social media at work for a wide variety of reasons.

Poor ethical decisions can have serious bottom-line impact on companies, as in last fall’s Wells Fargo fraud case. The financial services company spent nearly $200 million on fines and restitution ordered by the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau.

Zhanna Bagdasarov, assistant professor of Management at California State University, Fresno, was the lead author on the study titled “Aristotle, Kant, and . . .Facebook? A Look at the Implications of Social Media on Ethics,” also published online in the spring of 2017 by Ethics & Behavior.

Bagdasarov said the impact of bad decisions made by researchers, like those doing work in medical or clinical settings, can be even more momentous. “This is where it really gets scary because of the effect unethical decisions can have on society at large.”

She collaborated on the research with April Martin, senior scientist at Pacific Science and Engineering; Rahul Chauhan, assistant professor in the Department of Management West Texas A&M University; andShane Connelly, professor of Psychology at the University of Oklahoma and 2017 SIOP Fellow.

Connelly said the researchers decided to undertake the study because “people use social media so much, and they use it without thought to what they’re processing, what they’re coming across, what they’re sharing with other people.”

Begun in 2014, the study is among the earliest work by I-O psychologists to assess social media’s impact on how people interact at work and in society. There has been much recent discussion about the effect of social media on political attitudes. Bagdasarov and Connelly believe social media has the potential to similarly affect people’s perceptions of ethics.

Simply put, ethics are a framework for conduct or behavior that is right and fair.

Earlier studies have shown that ethics are shaped by social norms, which are informal but very powerful rules governing social behavior, enforced by direct or vicarious social interaction. When faced with complex or ambiguous social situations, people rely on social norms to guide them.

To investigate how social media is influencing social norms and ethical perceptions, the researchers conducted an online survey of 181 undergraduate students from an introductory psychology course, most of whom had no formal ethics training.

In this case, using students as a study group is relevant because of the role social media plays in decision making for younger people. Bagdasarov, who has had ample opportunity to observe the study group in her work says, “They really can’t imagine their lives without social media.” Further, they use social media to help guide their actions. Marketer Jeff Fromm wrote in Forbes that 68% of millennials delay making major decisions until they’ve discussed it with people they trust.

For the ethics study, researchers asked survey participants four questions about ethically charged, social media-based scenarios. The questions concerned the social and personal acceptability of the behaviors described, the ethicality of the behavior, and how that behavior made the participants feel.

Many of the scenarios, as in the following example, are set in the workplace:

Employees at a company are told to write multiple, positive reviews about the company (even if they have never used the business’s services) during their free time in order to make the company look better and hopefully drive more traffic to the business.

Other scenarios are more general in nature. All are included in the appendix to the Ethics and Behavior article.

Participants’ responses to the scenarios were correlated with information about their involvement with social media, engagement in discussion of ethical issues, exposure to ethical violations, and willingness to change their thoughts as a result of being exposed to ethical issues on social media.

Because previous research had linked the Big Five Personality factors, as well as trust and cynicism to ethical decision making, researchers also examined the participants in relation to these variables.

Study results showed that exposure to ethical violations on social media was associated with decreased personal acceptability and perceived ethicality, and increased negative feelings about the unethical events described in the social media scenarios.

The results seemed to rest on the power of social media to create and reinforce social norms and conformity to them, and that’s a good news/bad news scenario.

The bad news, as outlined in the research report, is that “even a relatively small number of people agreeing with an unethical issue on social media could lead people to a false sense of consensus and a pressure to conform to this consensus.”

Connelly said, “When on social media, we tend to surround ourselves with like-minded people, whether it’s political views, religious views, or social views, and you can get this bubble arising.”

Decision making in an ethical bubble, particularly in a business context, can be disastrous. Bagdasarov said it’s important to pierce such a bubble and counteract perceived social pressure. “I think this is where formal ethics training as an intervention comes into play, as a really important component.”

The good news is that social media is a potentially powerful force for reaching large numbers of people with ethical training. Bagdasarov said their study directly supports the effectiveness of case-based ethics education. “Things you read on social media can serve as ethical vignettes. Ultimately, this vicarious learning could influence future decisions.”

Although there is a lot of literature on business ethics and what Connelly calls “just basic decent behavior in the workplace,” she pointed out that many problematic things still happen. She suggested that periodic social media messages from organization “bellwethers” about the subject could improve workplace ethics.

Bagdasarov would like to further study the use of social media for ethics training and both researchers urge others to help expand the research.


Connect with Zhanna Bagdasarov on LinkedIn or Researchgate.

Connect with Shane Connelly by e-mail.

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