By Melissa Locker
December 12, 2018
Brendan O'Sullivan/Getty Images

We have all been there. You’re just mindlessly scrolling through Facebook when you see a comment that not only rubs you the wrong way, but grates on your last nerve while doing it. You quickly fire off a few choice words in response and before you know it you’re knee-deep in a Facebook argument with someone you barely know. While most of us wouldn’t be rude enough to argue with strangers without a very good reason, thanks to Facebook, we now have the unique opportunity to argue with our best friend’s uncle about politics in public. Or, you know, not.

There’s a reason that Facebook and social media in general make us particularly punchy and willing to pick fights with people we would normally just brush off with a gentle, “Bless their heart.” According to a recent study published in the journal Psychological Science, people may respond differently to an opinion they read online versus one they hear in real life or in a video.

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Researchers at UC Berkeley and University of Chicago theorized that when we hear someone explain their opinion, we believe they are capable human beings, even if we disagree with what they are saying. That doesn’t hold true, however, when we read other people’s opinions. So, when you’re scrolling through Facebook and see something you disagree with, you don’t necessarily believe they share the same capabilities. (The researchers said we view them as “relatively mindless”, which seems harsh.)

To test this theory, they asked 300 volunteers to read, watch a video, or listen to arguments about controversial topics. They then had the participants answer questions about the opinions they disagreed with and their findings were fascinating. When they read the differing opinions, the participants were completely dismissive of opposing opinions, characterizing them as “uninformed or heartless.” When they heard or saw someone voice an opinion they disagreed with they were kinder and gentler in their response.

The researchers believe that this is because when we read something online, it is completely divorced from humanity—it’s frequently anonymous and merely words on a page. Hearing someone talk reminds us that they are human, giving their opinion “quite literally, a voice,” wrote the researchers.

The next time you find yourself about to embark on a Facebook flame war, remember that the person writing those obnoxious opinions on the other end of that social network is a human, too. Then step back from the computer and just think, “Bless their heart.”

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