Do the Right Thing

Spirit, science, and health

The Social Contagion of Rage

Why is everyone so angry?

I’m afraid that cable news, Washington politics, talk radio, and the internet have all contributed to a social contagion of rage and entitlement that has become the new normal.

It is pretty remarkable that we now live in a culture where national news anchors don’t report news but rage against those who they don’t like or agree with on various topics. It is amazing that politicians vote as a block just to stymie their colleagues from a different political party without concern about the common good. It is shocking that people write with such vitriol in the comment section of online news reports. Why is everyone so mad? And in their anger there is a sense of entitlement that seems to suggest that only a complete idiot could possibly have a point of view different from their own.

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Whatever happened to the notion that reasonable people can disagree about things but do so in a thoughtful, reasoned, polite, and cool-headed manner?

Wow! Things are so ugly out there that some news outlets are starting to disable the comment section of their online reports. Even the National Catholic Reporter (NCR) had to do this just the other week. Yikes, if the Catholics can’t even discuss current events with reason and politeness how can others do so?

Social contagion might be a helpful theory to understand how this state of affairs got started and is supported. Once popular cable news shows, such as Fox News, started to engage in this kind of behavior on a regular basis and people turned in to watch, others followed suit. Once aggressive politicians behaved this way and were reinforced for doing so by winning elections, others followed suit. Once the culture habituates to this style of interacting and behavior it becomes acceptable and even expected. It is the new normal for sure.

I wonder why there is so little push back or corrective feedback that this type of behvaior is offensive and shouldn't be tolerated? After all, if a pre-school child has a temper tantrum don't we give them corrective feedback and a time out? We certainly don't reinforce their behavior, reward it, encourage it, and even give them a microphone to continue. Yet this is what we are doing with so many adults today.


Sadly, we need to work very hard to reverse this trend and to bring civility and both reasoned and polite discourse back in vogue. Can you do your part to help? Can you help to start a social contagion of thoughtful, reasoned, and polite discourse? Social contagion theory can be helpful to understand and change behavior. People can use it for good and for bad. Let’s try to use it for good. Shall we? 

So, what do you think? And be polite! 

Check out my web site at www.scu.edu/tplante and follow me on Twitter @ThomasPlante

Copyright 2014 Thomas G. Plante, PhD, ABPP 

Thomas Plante, PhD, ABPP, is the Augustin Cardinal Bea, SJ University Professor at Santa Clara University and Adjunct Clinical Professor of Psychiatry at Stanford University.

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