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When is Outrage an Appropriate Response?

Outrage has an upside, but only in certain contexts.

Several hours after the announcement of the 2018 Heisman trophy winner, Oklahoma’s Kyler Murray, a reporter dredged up a series of tweets from the spotlighted young athlete’s past. The tweets, posted when Murray was around 14 or 15 years old, used a homophobic slur not unprecedented in the usage of teenage boys. This caused the internet to erupt in its usual response: moral outrage. People called for Murray’s Heisman trophy to be taken away and for his multi-million dollar professional contract to be rescinded. Neither of these proposals came to pass. But it showed the cliffs' edge that any public figure is liable to be pushed from by an angry mob in the digital age.

Social psychologists have begun to study cases such as Murray’s and address the role that moral outrage plays in today’s society. A recent series of articles penned by psychologists Victoria Spring, William Brady, and their colleagues at Harvard, Yale, and Penn State engaged in a debate on this topic. One side argued that moral outrage is a positive force because it mobilizes people to engage in beneficial collective actions (14-year-old boys may, for the first time in history, think twice now before shooting off a homophobic tweet). The other side argued that any possible benefits don’t outweigh the cost of overreaction (should we really be worried about some 14-year-old’s tweets when there are bigger problems in the world?). What the researchers agree on is what is happening. The contention comes with whether it’s a good thing.

The basis of moral outrage comes from people’s differing sets of beliefs about right and wrong. Social psychologists call these moral norms, as in what you normally expect someone to do if they’re acting morally. Moral outrage is a response to someone else violating these norms. More than mere rage, it is a mix of anger and disgust—a potent emotional combination, like someone cutting you off in traffic while you smell rotten eggs. This emotional response leads you to take action against the norm violator. This can be through gossip, shaming, or punishment. When many people engage in such retributive action it can lead to widespread societal consequences, some of which are positive and some of which aren’t.

Moral outrage can encourage people to act in societally beneficial ways in much the same way empathy can. Through empathy, we can see someone in harm’s way and do something to help them. These small acts can add up. For example, when many people are moved to donate to feed children on another continent, the donations can amount to something substantial. Moral outrage can also be a catalyst for positive social actions. A recent outbreak of Twitter rage directed against a person’s joke about contracting AIDs in Africa inspired someone to create a fundraising website in that person’s name that collected donations for the nonprofit Aid for Africa.

The most blatant drawback of moral outrage is that it stirs up conflict. For every person who is outraged about a 14-year-old’s homophobic tweets, there is someone who becomes outraged at the person who became outraged at such a commonplace infraction. Outrage is a repelling force, in this case, driving apart two individuals who would otherwise have no reason to be upset with one another. The more insidious drawback of moral outrage is that the reaction is often overblown in proportion to the event that caused it. Regardless of whether you think someone’s tweet is inappropriate, it is probably not as big of a deal as, say, the heroin epidemic in Western Massachusetts. Yet much of our societal interest is often directed toward policing wrongful tweets at the expense of larger issues like domestic drug abuse.

The reason for this pattern has to do with crowd psychology. As the researchers note, “shaming a stranger on a deserted street is far riskier than joining a Twitter mob of thousands.” Other reasons have to do with online echo chambers, where you only see tweets and posts from people who believe the same thing as you. Then you come to believe that everyone thinks the same thing you do—everyone reasonable, anyway. But perhaps most importantly of all is the way online engagement makes it easy to dehumanize one another. Moral outrage motivates us to cause harm to offenders. It’s much easier to harm someone when they’re an abstract figment, miles away from our reality, rather than when they’re a real person standing in front of you.

What we often see with moral outrage is a case of the fabled boy who tweeted wolf. If you get upset every time someone on the internet does something wrong, then no one is going to take you seriously when it’s time to go after the real bad guys. Moral outrage can undoubtedly be a useful tool to mobilize people for the common good. But two considerations make outrage a difficult tool to wield. The first is that not everyone shares the same idea of the “common good.” While it’s impossible to get everyone to agree what’s right, it’s worth taking a step back and asking how big a deal something is in the grand scheme of things. The second consideration is that mobilization is a fixed quantity. If everyone’s mobilized for one cause, that means they’re too tied up at the moment to mobilize for another. While it’s hard to know where to draw the line, it’s best to draw it in a place that encourages us to direct outrage at the things that are truly worth getting worked up about.


Originally posted on Psychology Today.

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