Ulterior Motives

How goals, both seen and unseen, drive behavior

The Emotions Underlying Moral Outrage

Moral outrage involves anger and disgust

Cable TV news is filled with examples of moral outrage.  Hosts of news programs display high levels of anger at some situation going on in the world.  They describe a violation of a deeply-held belief and then their emotion bubbles to the surface.  And, chances are, you have experienced this emotion yourself when a situation crosses one of your moral boundaries. 

But, what kind of an emotion is moral outrage?

This question was explored in a paper in the October, 2013 issue of Psychological Science by Jessica Salerno and Liana Peter-Hagene. 

They explored the influence of anger and disgust on feelings of moral outrage. The word outrage suggests that anger is a big part of this moral feeling.  And when you are experiencing moral outrage, it certainly feels like intense anger.

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These researchers suggest that what separates moral outrage from anger, though, is disgust.  They argue that people need the combination of disgust and anger to get real moral outrage.

In one study, participants viewed testimony and lawyers’ arguments from a murder case. The testimony included pictures and descriptions of stab wounds from the victim’s throat.  Afterward, participants stated whether they thought the defendant was guilty. They rated their degree of anger and disgust as well as their sense of moral outrage at the defendant. 

People’s judgments of moral outrage were predicted by a combination of anger and disgust. In particular, anger alone and disgust alone do not create moral outrage. Instead, it was important to have the combination of the two to experience moral outrage. The degree of moral outrage then influenced people’s sense of the guilt of the defendant and their confidence in that verdict. 

The researchers also replicated the relationship between anger, disgust and moral outrage using scenarios involving a church group picketing a soldier’s funeral and a description of a sexual assault. Once again, the combination of anger and disgust led to feelings of moral outrage. 

This research fits with a growing body of work exploring the role of disgust in moral judgments.  Clearly, we experience disgust when there is some situation or food that is dirty.  We extend that disgust to situations that violate our moral beliefs. So, things that are disgusting have the prospect to engage our moral sense. When we combine that disgust with anger, then we can slip into the white-hot rage that is common for moral outrage.   

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Art Markman, Ph.D., is a cognitive scientist at the University of Texas whose research spans a range of topics in the way people think.

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