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J Exp Psychol Gen. 2019 Sep 5. doi: 10.1037/xge0000673. [Epub ahead of print]

Attentional capture helps explain why moral and emotional content go viral.

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Department of Psychology.
Department of Psychology and Center for Neural Science.


Our social media newsfeeds are filled with a variety of content all battling for our limited attention. Across 3 studies, we investigated whether moral and emotional content captures our attention more than other content and if this may help explain why this content is more likely to go viral online. Using a combination of controlled lab experiments and nearly 50,000 political tweets, we found that moral and emotional content are prioritized in early visual attention more than neutral content, and that such attentional capture is associated with increased retweets during political conversations online. Furthermore, we found that the differences in attentional capture among moral and emotional stimuli could not be fully explained by differences in arousal. These studies suggest that attentional capture is 1 basic psychological process that helps explain the increased diffusion of moral and emotional content during political discourse on social media, and shed light on ways in which political leaders, disinformation profiteers, marketers, and activist organizations can spread moralized content by capitalizing on natural tendencies of our perceptual systems. (PsycINFO Database Record (c) 2019 APA, all rights reserved).


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