Psychologists claim outrage is getting a bad rap

GettyImages-1019510930.jpgBy guest blogger Jesse Singal

Outrage: It’s absolutely everywhere. Today’s world, particularly the version of it blasted into our brains by social media, offers endless fodder, from big, simmering outrages (climate change and many powerful institutions’ refusal to do anything about it) to smaller quotidian ones (every day, someone, somewhere does something offensive that comes to Twitter’s attention, leading to a gleeful pile-on).

In part because of rising awareness of the adverse consequences of unfettered digital-age outrage, and of journalistic treatments like So You’ve Been Publicly Shamed by Jon Ronson (which I interviewed him about here), outrage has become a particularly potent dirty word in recent years. Outrage, the thinking goes, is an overly emotional response to a confusing world, and drives people to nasty excesses, from simple online shaming to death threats or actual violence.

But a new paper argues that the concept of outrage has gotten too bad a rap and that its upsides, especially as a motivator of collective action and costly helping, have been overlooked. Writing  in Trends in Cognitive Sciences, the psychologists Victoria Spring, Daryl Cameron and Mina Cikara detail important questions about outrage that have yet to be answered, and they highlight how certain findings – especially from the “intergroup relations” literature, in contrast to the mostly negative findings from moral psychology – suggest it can serve a useful purpose.

They cite two experiments, for example, in which “both naturally occurring outrage (about an ongoing conflict) and induced outrage (manipulated via video footage about the conflict) predict[ed] greater support for nonviolent peacemaking policies relative to ‘induced hope’ and ‘neutral’ emotion manipulations. Similarly, women who read that the majority of men harbour hostile sexist beliefs (versus benevolent sexist beliefs or gender-unrelated beliefs) exhibit[ed] increased anger and fury, which predict[ed] intentions to participate—and actual participation—in collective action for equal salaries. By contrast, reappraisal, aimed at reducing negative emotions such as outrage, reduce[d] participants’ reported intentions to engage in political action.”

That’s all fair enough. But arguing that researchers — or anyone else — focus too much on the downsides of outrage feels like an uphill battle to fight in 2018. There are endless, endless examples of online outrage spreading out of control, doing damage most people would view as disproportionate. In 2015, for example, I wrote about a woman who was driven from her home as a result of death threats after she made a failed and offensive joke about a slain law enforcement officer — and as Ronson and others have documented, there are a million stories like this one.

Now, few people would deny that outrage is an important impulse for helping to make the world a better place, and for dealing with those who breach important norms. But there are many aspects of human nature that have fundamentally important purposes, but which can also go haywire in certain contexts — especially given that most of us are now living in situations far removed from those in which our ancestors lived and evolved.

Take, well, cheeseburgers: Humans have evolved tendencies to seek out high-calorie foods. This tendency helped keep us alive during the evolutionary history that brought us to now. For most of that history, scarcity was the norm — a double bacon cheeseburger, to a European or African peasant hundreds of years ago, would have been a caloric bonanza the likes of which they had never before seen and might never see again. Today, of course, in much of the developed world we’re lucky not to face this sort of paucity of calories. In fact, the situation has improved so much that many of us face the opposite problem: too many calories, too easily consumed (you can buy a double bacon cheeseburger for just a few pounds, if that, whenever you want). That’s part of the reason countries like the UK and the United States have certain health problems: Many people consume far more calories than they should, because there’s so much affordable energy-rich food everywhere.

To argue that researchers or anyone else are failing to see the positive sides of outrage, in 2018, feels a bit like arguing that people are failing to see the positive sides of our desire for rich and fatty foods. It’s true, at a basic level, that it’s good we’re drawn to calories: Without that drive, we wouldn’t survive. But in 2018, for those fortunate to live in food-secure places, no one is wanting for calories, and a surfeit of calories is the more important and societally relevant problem.

Similarly, we have so many opportunities, every moment of every day, to express outrage, and so many opportunities to accidentally contribute to disproportionate anger directed at faceless, distant strangers, that it feels as though social media, 24-hour news, and other media innovations are taking a fundamentally important human drive — the ability to get outraged at norm breaches — and blowing it up into something ugly and maladaptive.

Spring and her coauthors conclude their paper by writing that “we hope to promote a more complete view of outrage—as an emotion that might lead to interpersonal antagonism, but that may also act as a lever for activism on a societal scale.” And that’s a worthy goal: There’s a sturdy body of literature showing that emotion, in general, is more likely to get people to act in prosocial ways than dryer, more empirical appeals — there’s a deep truth behind the well-worn expression “A single death is a tragedy; a million deaths is a statistic.” But that same feeling of righteous anger that can, in one case, lead people to donate to the less fortunate can, in the next, turn those same people against (to take one example) innocent migrants seeking a better life. Outrage is big and messy and hard to contain — we need it, on a fundamental level, but we should never forget its many dangers and the many ways in which it can lead to negative and inhumane outcomes.

The Upside of Outrage

Post written by Jesse Singal (@JesseSingal) for the BPS Research Digest. Jesse is a contributing writer at New York Magazine. He is working on a book about why shoddy behavioral-science claims sometimes go viral, for Farrar, Straus and Giroux.

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