We live in polarizing times. This animation from Pew Research captures this drift of political outlook for the U.S. In our hyperconnected, social media age, this tribal us versus them is not only the consequence of different cultures, geography, or history. Social fragmentation and – increasingly – hostility and rancor are driven by outrage. Outrage may now the most effective way to drive viral attention, and therefore revenue.
Besides profit, neuroscience research suggests that expressions of moral outrage are fueled by more than altruism and a desire for justice. It suggests that outrage is about threats to moral identity.
From the University of Arkansas, four studies of (presumably cisgender) heterosexuals* suggest that for men especially, expressing outrage may strategically signal social values, so that prospective long-term partners infer “benevolence and trustworthiness,” from implied shared values. In other words, these straight men are outraged for love.
Other research suggests even broader and more defensive motivations. According to this series of five studies, and building on other work, the research shows that moral outrage at a third-party transgression may be especially triggered by guilt over one’s own culpability in harm. In the studies, subjects read accounts of exploitative labor conditions and environmental wrong-doing, and were asked about their own responsibility.
When answering questions about corporate malfeasance, expressing outrage reduced the threat to their moral standing caused by this renewed awareness of their own culpability, even when the target of outrage was irrelevant to the source of personal guilt.
The uncomfortable conclusion here is that outrage may be more about guilt, our own sense of culpability, than about only justice. Clearly, this understanding shouldn’t discourage accountability. But in an environment where the reflexive ricochet of social posts appears to be dismantling civic discourse, the research supports a healthy practice of self-awareness.
From my first experience with clinicians in the EEGer community at the Neurofeedback Interchange Conference, continuing though these webinars** over the last few years, I have felt gently grounded by your pragmatic perspectives, your clarity, your curiosity, your willingness to learn. May your week bring you deep insight where it can be most useful.
*All of the studies referenced here appear to focus on “middle-class” U.S. residents. It appears common in the research literature not to specify the cultural, socioeconomic, or other standpoints of research subjects, so contextualizing results globally is correspondingly difficult.