• Mitchell R. Campbell

Why posting a black square isn't nothing

Updated: Oct 14, 2020

Since the high-profile killings of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, Ahmaud Arbery, and Rayshard Brooks, I’ve noticed the content of my social media feeds changing: lately, they have shifted to primarily providing information about the history of race and policing in America and showing what people are doing and can do to support racial justice. There is widespread agreement among individuals in my social network that Black Lives Matter, and newly acquired evidence suggests that this same phenomenon isn’t limited to my feed: support for Black Lives Matter has jumped dramatically in the past few weeks.

What’s going on here? How could such a dramatic change in attitudes occur in such a short span of time? The answer, at least in part, concerns social norms. It just so happens that Sohad Murrar, Markus Brauer, and I had a research paper published in Nature Human Behaviour this week that specifically addresses whether social norms about the prevalence of pro-diversity attitudes affect how people feel about members of different social groups and act toward them. Spoiler alert: they do.

Social norms are fundamentally about how we think others in our social environment would perceive the behaviors we engage in. In our research, we were specifically interested in descriptive social norms: information about how one’s peers behave. People are motivated to build relationships and group affiliations, which leads them to adopt behaviors that are normative among the groups they want to be a part of. The influence of descriptive norms on behavior has been shown across numerous domains, including environmental behavior, health behavior, and purchasing behavior. What remained relatively unclear when we began our research project was what effect communicating a positive descriptive norm about diversity would have on how people behave toward members of different social groups.

We conducted a series of six experiments, four of them in real-world settings, where we exposed participants to social norms information. Specifically, either a poster (pictured, right) or short video communicated the idea that though discrimination still occurs, the large majority of students on campus support diversity and try to make the campus a welcoming and inclusive environment. We found that this social norms intervention increased pro-diversity attitudes and behaviors among students overall and improved the well-being of students from marginalized backgrounds months later, including reducing the academic achievement gap.

In short, the studies we conducted showed that exposure to peers’ pro-diversity attitudes and behaviors makes people more likely to endorse diversity and behave in more inclusive ways themselves. This observation can help explain the tidal shift we’ve seen on the issue of Black Lives Matter in such a short period of time.

Our findings also suggest that sharing our actions to support racial justice on social media allows our actions to have a positive effect in two ways. First, there is the direct benefit to the movement associated with attending a protest, donating funds to a social justice organization, etc. Then, there is a secondary benefit of sharing the action, which helps contribute to shifting social norms. There are, of course, concerns about these posts simply serving as “virtue signaling,” or prioritizing giving the impression of supporting a cause more than engaging in genuine action to advance that cause. I want to avoid being redundant with the great perspective on this conundrum offered by Drs Jamil Zaki and Mina Cikara in Time. For me personally, though, I think the benefits of engaging in the behavior and contributing to shifting social norms aren’t contingent on what motivated the behavior in the first place. Relevant psychological literature would predict that one downstream effect of changing our social norms is that behaviors that may begin as externally motivated will become increasingly internally motivated.

With all this on the top of my mind, I found myself having numerous discussions with friends on #BlackoutTuesday, on which almost 24 million Instagram users posted a black square image to indicate their support for the Black Lives Matter movement. The common sentiment among my friends was that posting this square had no positive effect on the fight for racial justice.

Was posting a square essentially the least people could do in support of this movement? Yes. But I’d argue that this gesture wasn’t nothing. Even such a simple behavior, requiring essentially no time or effort, contributed to communicating the norm that Black Lives Matter, that the fight for racial justice matters, that ending police violence and brutality matters. Some of the people who posted black squares will go on to engage in other anti-racist behaviors, whereas plenty of others’ anti-racist actions started and ended with that simple gesture. Even these people, though, engaged in a behavior that contributed to this effort, even if minimally.

We should apply what we’ve learned about communicating norms on social media in the future. For example, we should continue to aim to reach people that would otherwise be doing nothing to support social justice: getting these individuals involved by providing them simple things they can do to promote social justice causes may hold a key to bringing these fights to the mainstream.

Making our society more just and equitable requires work in many different areas using many different tools. I hope my research with my lab showing how social norms can be used to improve attitudes and behaviors toward people from different social groups can become a new tool in that toolbox.

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