Professor Piercarlo Valdesolo Draws on Social Science Research In His Anti-Cyberbullying Speech for 2nd Annual Facebook Event


Piercarlo Valdesolo
, assistant professor of psychology and head of the Moral Emotions and Trust Lab (MEATlab) at CMC, discussed scientific findings he and his research team have uncovered that shed light on the psychological triggers and behavioral consequences of compassion, with an eye toward better understanding and combating the rising phenomenon of cyberbullying.

Valdesolo’s participation came as part of Facebook’s 2nd Annual Compassion Research Day held July 11 at the company’s headquarters in Menlo Park, Calif. Facebook’s anti-cyberbullying push was launched soon after Tyler Clementi, an 18-year-old student at Rutgers University, committed suicide in an early instance of cyberbullying that brought international attention to the issue.

Facebook, however, says the idea for Compassion Research Day wasn’t inspired by a single event.

We asked Valdesolo, who co-authored the 2011 book, Out of Character: Surprising Truths about the Liar, Cheater, Sinner (and Saint) lurking in all of us, about his participation in Facebook’s event, whether cyberbullying is on the rise and, if so, how best to fight it.

CMC: How did you come to be part of this event in Menlo Park?
Piercarlo: Arturo Bejar in the Facebook Engineering Department has been leading an effort to use social science research as a means of resolving conflicts that unfold online, but that also have serious consequences offline. This pursuit led him to the science of compassion, and inspired the first Facebook Compassion Research Day last year. Because of that event’s success, and the promise that applying emotion research to online conflict demonstrated, the project has expanded. Presenters at the first event directed Facebook Engineering towards work that I have conducted in collaboration with David DeSteno at Northeastern University, looking at the psychological triggers and behavioral consequences of compassion.

CMC: What kind of talk did you give?
Piercarlo: The talk was intended to introduce the Facebook community to the basic science on compassion that our research team conducts, with an eye towards ultimately finding ways that these ideas can be used to either resolve online disputes, or prevent their emergence. In particular, my research has identified feelings of similarity and shared identity with others as a key towards eliciting greater compassion. We are currently working with Facebook and the other researchers invited to the event to test whether changes to the interface can create greater feelings of connection amongst potential disputants. We believe that even subtle tweaks will be able to quell conflicts before they reach the point of bullying, as well as more effectively direct victims of online abuse to the appropriate support.

CMC: What kind of social science did you primarily draw on?
Piercarlo: My lab studies the structure and function of “moral emotions.” Things like compassion, gratitude, pride and awe. For a long time these kinds of feelings were considered to be obstacles to good decision-making. But my lab’s perspective is that these emotions motivate judgments and behaviors that are absolutely essential to social success. The online environment strips interaction of its emotional richness and we’re trying to find ways to reintroduce that complexity into the technology.

CMC: Is there any big (perhaps more ominous) difference between cyber-bullying and the regular bullying kids often confront growing up?
Piercarlo: Because of the lack of nonverbal and emotional communication, online interactions are more susceptible to misinterpretations that can spiral into serious confrontations. They also deny potential wrongdoers from the cues of distress and suffering that can oftentimes stop conflict before it becomes abusive. For example, we have a suite of nonverbal responses that communicate distress: crying, flushed cheeks, submissive postures. In offline interactions these
cues would communicate to potential abusers that they are causing harm and, potentially, cause them to reflect on their actions. But there’s no compelling emoticon for tears. One of the big challenges of this work is to figure out how users can more easily see and understand how they are making others feel, and to give them that feedback as soon as possible.

CMC: In your view, is bullying more pervasive now in society or are we just more attuned to it vis-?-vis possible media over-hyping?
Piercarlo: I can’t speak to any changes in the frequency of bullying over time. But it is clear that the means through which individuals can be bullied is evolving, so efforts to address such abuse need to evolve as well.

CMC: What is the best defense against becoming a victim of cyber-bullying?
Piercarlo: Though there are techniques we are trying to employ that address the frequency of cyberbullying, the top priority is to fill the needs of victims after they’ve been attacked. There will always be bullies. The most important work we can do is to make sure that victims feel empowered and are easily able to reach out to supportive people in their online network, or to the appropriate sources of offline help.