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Outrage! Our minds and morals did not evolve to cope with social media

Outrage is a useful emotion that helped our ancient ancestors survive. Today, it leaves us feeling angry, tired, powerless, and miserable.
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Key Takeaways
  • Outrage is an evolutionarily useful emotion because it punishes rulebreakers and keeps people in line.
  • Today, we express much of our outrage online, which serves no particular purpose and only rarely addresses the moral offense or seeks to correct it.
  • We are not slaves to our nature. We can disengage from outrage.

What does evolution have to do with the problem of social media toxicity? The short answer is: more than you might think. The longer answer is: social media toxicity is, in part, a byproduct of the way our minds evolved to think about right and wrong.

Like our bodies, our minds have been shaped by our long evolutionary history as social animals, one that spent the vast majority of its evolutionary past living in small-scale societies. These societies had radically different social dynamics compared to the massive, diverse, globalized, online societies we live in today. And many of the social and moral problems our distant ancestors had to solve were also radically different to the ones we face today.

So the tools that evolution gave our ancestors to solve their problems — including mental heuristics and moral emotions — may have worked well in their world, but drop those same tools into our world, and they can cause more harm than good.

In many ways, key parts of our evolved moral psychology are past their use-by date. And it’s time that we pushed back on them and brought our thinking into the 21st century.

Outrage as a survival mechanism

Consider outrage. We don’t normally think of outrage as a “moral” emotion, but that’s what it is. Outrage is a special kind of anger that we feel when someone does something wrong. It fills us with a surge of energy that motivates us to lash out and punish them. It’s what we experience when someone lies, steals, or violates our dignity.

Outrage served our ancestors well. When someone in their group did something wrong, outrage fired them up and motivated them to fix the problem. It helped them to keep everyone in line, preventing bullies from taking over and stopping the sneaky ones from getting away with stealing.

One example that reflects how outrage has likely operated for hundreds of thousands of years was described by anthropologist Colin Turnbull in his classic 1961 book, The Forest People. He recounted the story of Cephu, a member of a Mbuti band, an indigenous pygmy people living as hunter-gatherers in the Congo in Africa in the 20th century. 

Cephu was a man of great ambition. And that ambition led him to cheat the other members of his group during a hunt one afternoon. Normally, the several dozen members of the band worked together to trap and capture game. The men would set up nets in the forest, and the women would beat bushes to scare the animals into those nets. The resulting catch would be shared equally throughout the group.

But Cephu thought he deserved more than a fair share. So he committed a cardinal offense by sneakily setting up his net ahead of the other hunters, snagging more game for himself. He then hid his catch and didn’t share it.

But his greed didn’t go unnoticed. After the hunt, word spread of Cephu’s deception. Outrage spread throughout the group. When Cephu returned to the camp, the band turned on him. He was snubbed and threatened with ostracism for his crimes, which is tantamount to a death sentence for someone living in such a small-scale society. (This is one reason why the threat of social exclusion still cuts so deep for us to this day.) In the face of the collective outrage from his group, Cephu owned up and agreed to share his meat. And after it was fairly distributed, all was forgiven.

Outrage worked. It brought the band together to confront Cephu and bring him back into line. It also restored him as a functioning member of the group rather than expelling him. 

Outrage in a time of Twitter

Now think about what would happen if one of the people who saw Cephu cheat tweeted about him instead of confronting him face-to-face? And what if you, sitting on the other side of the world, saw that tweet? You don’t know Cephu. His cheating didn’t affect you personally. But there is a fair chance you would feel outraged at what he did.

Then what? You might share it, causing others to get outraged. And they might share it too, spreading the outrage further. That is how social media works. It probably wouldn’t take long before people started calling for him to be doxxed or sacked. And, it probably wouldn’t be long before there was a backlash defending Cephu and issuing threats to the people calling him out. In short: a typical day on social media.

But what would this viral outrage achieve? 

Almost certainly nothing positive. Unlike in Cephu’s actual case, where his group was able to confront him face-to-face and bring him back into line, rarely does online outrage actually address the moral offense or seek to correct it. And even more rarely does the punishment fit the crime. 

Sometimes, the consequences of online outrage can even be fatal. There are numerous accounts of people taking their own lives after being targeted by a social media mob. In addition, this constant torrent of outrage leaves the rest of us feeling angry, tired, powerless, and miserable. 

The problem with social media is that many of the outrages we witness are far removed from us, and we have little or no power to prevent them or to reform the wrongdoers in any meaningful way. But that doesn’t stop us trying. Because outrage demands satisfaction.

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However, social media only gives the illusion of agency. We feel that by sharing a post or joining a Twitter mob we are actually doing something. But, most of the time, we are just yelling into the void. We are only spreading the outrage further afield and causing more people to become angry, tired, powerless, and miserable.

How to disengage from outrage

Meanwhile, social media companies profit. Research has shown that posts that include moralized language — like “fuming”, “maddening,” or “outrageous” — are shared more than level-headed posts. More shares means more engagement, which means more advertising revenue. This remains true even if the engagement is toxic.

When you look at Twitter in action, you see outrage working as nature intended. Except it’s not working in the environment it was “designed” for. Outrage worked for our ancestors living in small-scale communities, where they knew the wrongdoer personally and were able to team up with allies to bring them back into line. 

In the modern world, when we are separated by screens and only able to communicate in tiny snippets of text, outrage can misfire. It becomes a relic of a different time that is out of step with the way we experience the world today.

The good news is that we are not slaves to our nature. We might have evolved to experience outrage, but we also evolved the ability to defy our genes and unshackle ourselves from our evolved tendencies. That is what ethics is all about. Ethics encourages us to listen to our gut but also to use our minds to decide on which emotions to act on. And if we decide that unchecked outrage is doing us harm, we can push back against our natural responses.

We still carry the psychological, cognitive, and cultural baggage of our ancestors, even though they packed for a very different world. But it is still within our power to drop that baggage, push back on our nature, and repack a moral toolkit that is fit for the modern era.


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