What Does Your Level of Moral Outrage Tell Others About You?

Outraged by something on the internet? Yawn. You may be simply falling for a very old trick... and becoming a run-of-the-mill bully in the process.

Molly Crockett: Moral outrage is a very powerful emotion that motivates us to shame and punish people who have broken some social rule, who have harmed us or someone we care about in some way. And there are many benefits of moral outrage, but there are also many costs. 

So the benefits can fall into two broad categories. The first category of benefit is social benefits. So when we express outrage about some kind of wrongdoing, that teaches others that that kind of behavior is not going to be tolerated, and it can motivate other people to behave morally so that they can avoid getting shamed or punished for breaking the rules. 

The other kind of benefit that moral outrage brings out is personal. Moral outrage broadcasts to the rest of your social group that you are the kind of person who is not likely to break the rules. So these two benefits of expressing outrage have to be balanced against the costs of outrage. 

So expressing outrage carries some risks, particularly in the day to day world. If you approach a stranger on the street—let’s say for littering—there’s a chance they might retaliate against you. There’s a chance that they could physically aggress against you. We saw a really tragic case of the huge possible costs of expressing moral norms and trying to regulate bad behavior earlier this year in Portland when a couple of people, really brave people lost their lives for trying to rein in someone who was expressing racist comments on a commuter train in Portland.

So it can be risky to express outrage. It can be uncomfortable, stressful; telling somebody to their face that they’ve done something wrong is just awkward sometimes. So when we are expressing outrage we really have to weigh these costs against the benefits. And evolution has equipped us with a really fine-tuned calculus for making these kinds of decisions in interpersonal and face to face interactions. 

If moral outrage is a fire, the internet is like gasoline. So when we think about the costs, of benefits of expressing outrage, what social media does is it turns down all the costs and dials up the benefits. 

So expressing outrage on social media is way easier than expressing it offline. It’s less costly. You can do it with the click of a button. You can join a large crowd, so hiding amongst a lot of other people really takes down the riskiness of expressing outrage towards a person who has broken some norm. 

And, of course, it dials up the benefits. You’re getting social feedback, likes from your friends, retweets, shares. And the audience, of course, is so much bigger on social media than it is offline. So the reputational benefits of expressing outrage are massively bigger when you take it online. 

So moral outrage is really interesting because of its reputational benefits. And it can be contrasted with cyber bullying for example. Both are aggressive kinds of behaviors, but the one expresses that you are a morally good person, and the other has rather the opposite effect. 

So research on cyber bullying seems to suggest that anonymity that’s often found online increases cyber-bullying. 

There are fewer studies on this, but it seems like the opposite occurs in the case of moral outrage expression online. So there’s one recent study that looked at expressions of outrage in an online political forum in Germany. 

And in this study they looked at the effects—of being anonymous versus identified—on how aggressive the language was in these posts that had to do with social policies. And they actually found that people were expressing more outrage about these moral political issues when they were not anonymous. 

So that seems to contrast with what is typically seen for cyber bullying.

Outrage on the internet is very, very easy to find. It seems that everyday someone has done something that other people can't stand and have to say something about (pro tip: this happened before the internet, too, it's just that there's a bigger audience for it thanks to social media). People dog pile on top of the person or thing they're outraged about, get worked up about it, and move on. But what does this constant anger actually say about us? Never before in human history has it been so easy to have an anonymous avatar to hide behind, and it's created a backwards and heightened version of outrage that neuroscientist Molly Crockett finds extremely interesting.

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