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Best of 2022: The allure of moral outrage

In a recent legal battles over the possibility of mandating COVID-19 vaccines, those on one side see such requirements as a tyrannical overreach into personal liberty to make medical decisions. On the other side, individuals are incensed that mandates aren’t in effect because this effectively hobbles collective efforts to mitigate the spread and continued mutation of the COVID-19 virus. It’s no secret that highly politicised issues like this seem to elicit strong emotional reactions, particularly feelings of intense anger. But not only are these feelings common, individuals seem actively motivated to seek out stories of tragedy, scandal, and injustice on a seemingly unending quest to feel moral outrage.

Moral outrage is typically defined as anger toward a perceived moral violation. What distinguishes moral outrage from other forms of anger (e.g., annoyance, feeling insulted) is that it involves a specifically moral dimension; there must be both 1) a personal moral standard and 2) a perceived violator of that standard. Additionally, moral outrage seems to reflect anger in combination with intense feelings of disgust. While some forms of anger are relatively ‘pure’ (e.g, being angry at a rude comment), moral outrage is best described as an emotional cocktail blending two intensely negative emotional experiences.

As a psychologist, I’ve long been personally interested in outrage because it seems to fly in the face of so many of our everyday intuitions about human nature. After all, wouldn’t people rather avoid unpleasant experiences that could reduce their happiness? Given the choice, people seem to prefer pleasant to unpleasant experiences but moral outrage seems a peculiar exception. Moreover, decades of data clearly demonstrate that societies like America are coming apart at the civic seams, with polarisation rapidly increasing year after year. Why would individuals actively want to feel such strong negative emotions about their leaders, fellow citizens, and others with whom their own lives are inextricably linked?

Counterintuitively, psychologists have long argued that humans seem particularly calibrated to remember things that make us feel bad and to base our decisions on negative emotions. Outrage, particularly on social media, seems like an extension of this fact. Studies show that not only do individuals encounter more information about immoral behavior online, but this exposure also elicits substantially stronger feelings of moral outrage.

To return to the question: what is the allure of all this moral outrage? Recent research in psychology highlights the valuable role that these experiences of outrage play in satisfying specific psychological needs that ultimately may help individuals cope with the human condition.


"People may be able to affirm their moral value by feeling outraged over perceived injustices."


First consider this question: How does one know that they are a good person? After all, everyone has at times done some things that are (morally speaking) good and others that are…less than good. Since humans are morally imperfect, we all experience doubts about whether deep down we actually are morally worthy.

My colleague Zach Rothschild and I spent years exploring the possibility that people may be able to affirm their moral value by feeling outraged over perceived injustices. For example, in one series of studies we found that people who felt guiltier after reading about sweatshop labor later expressed more outrage about corporations who profit from this practice. More surprisingly, we found that if people were given an opportunity to express outrage over corrupt corporations, they later felt less guilt about their own actions and even rated themselves to be a more moral person. In fact, in a final study we found that giving people a chance to enhance their moral worth (by asking them to write about a morally upstanding deed in their past) actually dampened outrage in a follow-up task.

Studies like these (and work conducted by others) show that some of the hostile emotions we feel may actually be serving a valuable role in allowing people to feel more confident that they are actually a good person deep down. By feeling angry about clear injustices, people can feel that they are advancing the cause of justice and ultimately that they are a morally good person.

In fact, the benefits of moral outrage for the individual may be even more far-reaching. In more recent work, we have found that for some individuals, the experience of outrage over a specific moral violation can actually enhance their sense that their life as a whole has meaning. Specifically, we found that when some individuals were given the chance to express outrage over a scandal, they subsequently showed an enhanced sense of meaning in life compared to a control group. Moreover, giving individuals the chance to affirm the meaningfulness of their lives also lead to a subsequent decrease in expressed outrage relative to a comparison group exposed to the same moral wrongdoing.

Other ongoing work in my lab finds that when individuals are reminded of social groups that make them feel angry, they feel even more confident that they really know who they are. In a simple series of studies, individuals were asked to reflect on groups in society that make them feel angry (or not) and those who did so subsequently felt more confident that they understood themselves and that their lives were an authentic reflection of their values. 


"For some individuals, the experience of outrage over a specific moral violation can actually enhance their sense that their life as a whole has meaning."


Taken together, these studies show that moral outrage is something of a bitter medicine; one that affords numerous existential benefits for the individual despite its unpleasant aftertaste. That said, the logic of these psychological processes gives us critical insight into why people may seek out opportunities to feel and express moral outrage, despite its unpleasantness and negative social costs.

Finally, it is worth noting that moral outrage also pays off socially for the individual: other studies we have conducted show that when individuals express outrage on social media, they are often seen as a more moral person by others as well. We found that a Twitter profile with posts expressing outrage about social issues caused the poster to be seen as more trustworthy and attractive. In other words, expressions of anger may have other benefits for individuals beyond affirming deep existential motives.

Does this mean that people who are outraged on social media are secretly manipulating others or trying to cope with their own psychological insecurities? Not necessarily; psychologists have only recently begun to ask serious questions about why moral outrage is such an appealing phenomenon. Of course, it is also simply true that many expressions of outrage may reflect genuine moral concern with no hidden psychological or social aim. In short, like most of human behavior, individual expressions of outrage are likely too multifaceted to be pinned down to a single cause.

What we can take away from this research into moral outrage are broader points about its place in our lives. Though it might seem that all the time people spend feeling angry and upset about moral violations could be detrimental to their happiness and well-being, psychological research shows that there may be much more going on under the surface. Enemies and injustices allow us to map our place in the world, to see our value, to communicate that value to others, and perhaps even to cope with fundamental concerns about our personal and collective mortality by feeling that our actions have a meaningful impact that will outlive us.

The universe can be a chaotic and messy place, but the struggles we take on ultimately allow individuals to make some sense of all of it in ways that may actually be an important ingredient in a life well-lived. That is why some theorists have argued that moral outrage, despite its toxicity, is an inevitability in modern materialistic societies where individuals must seek ways of mattering without common spiritual or cultural ground. The early research on outrage so far suggests that this may be right; that individuals and groups may need moral outrages to feel that there is a moral center in our modern world. If so, then those interested in cooling the temperature of political and social discourse may need to find new ways for individuals to secure a sense of their significance, identity, and moral goodness without the costs incurred by a culture of outrage.



Lucas Keefer is an Assistant Professor at the University of Southern Mississippi.

Topic tags: Lucas Keefer, moral outrage, psychology, anger, polarisation



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