Moral Outrage: Why We Attack Each Other

Research explains how concept creep and social incentives lead to outrage.

Posted Jun 22, 2019

theol6/Flickr
Source: theol6/Flickr

Outrage culture satisfies our urge for social solidarity. 

Groups have social incentives to be outraged– expressing anger shows your commitment to the values of your community. And media companies have financial incentives to rile people up– playing on your anger means more clicks and shares.

If You're Angry It Means You're on My Team

Outrage culture is the calamitization of the mundane. It allows us to form social bonds by combatting non-existent or exaggerated crises. By broadening the definition of calamities, we create new problems for which we need allies to solve. Furthermore, what we categorize as problems, and the solutions we propose, are indicators of our group affiliation.

As cognitive anthropologist Pascal Boyer puts it in Minds Make Societies, “Broadcasting threats may have the effect of forcing people to provide information…people who agree with you signal that they are ready to follow your cause… By contrast, those who ask for evidence, or debate the plausibility of your claims, signal that any solidarity with you would be conditional, which is of course not what we want of allies.”

In short, we sometimes use controversial events as litmus tests to see who is really on our side. If you express the right amount of outrage, then I know you’re part of my group. But if you don’t, then maybe I need to question where your loyalties really lie.

Human behavior and thought are products of an ageless evolutionary process. Environments and selection pressures molded our brains and behaviors. We’re good at overcoming crises because we’ve been doing it for a long time. And cooperation is the key.

Historian Yuval Harari, author of Sapiens, notes that one-on-one, a chimpanzee would defeat a human. But 1,000 humans would defeat 1,000 chimpanzees. This is because the cooperative skills of humans far outpace those of chimpanzees. A quote from Harari captures this: “Put 100,000 chimps in Wall Street or Yankee Stadium, and you’ll get chaos. Put 100,000 humans there, and you’ll get trade networks and sports contests.”

Social Pain In The Brain

In his book Social: Why Our Brains Are Wired to Connect, neuroscientist Matthew Lieberman shares his research revealing that regions of the brain responsible for pain activate for social pain as well as physical pain. Feeling ostracized literally hurts in the same way that stubbing your toe or being burned does.

And it’s similar for pleasure, too. Regions of the brain involved in reward-processing, the ventral striatum and orbitofrontal cortex, respond in similar ways to social pleasure as well as physical pleasure. Studies find that the same regions of our brains activate when we are told that others like us as when we eat sweets or win money. Neuroscientist Jaak Panksepp posits that our brain’s social attachment system co-opted our pain and pleasure systems. This drives us to maintain social bonds and avoid isolation.

Then there’s the social brain hypothesis. This is the idea that our large brains are the result of our ancestors’ need to navigate a complex web of social relations. Psychologist William von Hippel suggests, “our intelligence didn’t evolve to solve abstract problems and complex ways of dealing with the environment. Our intelligence evolved to deal with each other more effectively and to leverage the skills and abilities we have when we work together.”

We are deeply social. We need and crave it. And often, group solidarity is achieved when external threats arise.

Ancient Ideas in Modern Skulls

We live a world that is very different from the one our ancestors navigated. Technological advances have freed us from the burdens of our evolutionary past.

But our minds are shaped for that social environment. As Hector Garcia writes in Sex, Power, and Partisanship, “Though the risk of being massacred by neighbouring tribes has diminished since our days as hunter-gatherers, our minds remain calibrated for ancestral environments that roiled with intertribal bloodshed.”

We evolved to experience hardships together. The prehistoric stressors like warfare and  that united early humans no longer exist. Now we create artificial ones. This is one basis for the outrage which grips us today.  

Concept Creep

There are at least two reasons for why we calamitize the mundane. First, we weren’t built for comfort; we evolved for stress and conflict. Second, we have a coalitional instinct to be good group members. Plainly, we want conflict and we want allies to help us resolve it.

Outrage culture satisfies these urges. By broadening the definition of calamities, we create new problems for which we need allies to solve. Moreover, what we categorize as problems, and the solutions we propose, serve as indicators of our tribal affiliation.

All calamities carry the potential for unity. But why calamitize mundane events?

Outrage culture appears to be nurtured by concept creep. This is the idea that as the world becomes safer, our definition of what constitutes harm expands. Take violence. Violence was once defined as a physical act but some have expanded it to include language.  

Concept creep seems to come naturally to us. In a recent study, experimenters showed people a series of blue and purple dots. They then asked them to judge whether each dot was blue or not. In early trials, half the dots were blue while other half were purple. Gradually, experimenters manipulated the dots so that more dots that appeared were purple.

However, the participants began to expand their definition of “blue” and counted many of the purple dots as blue. They looked for blue dots and managed to “find” them.

But it’s not just dots. In a different version of the experiment, participants looked at faces with expressions ranging from neutral to threatening. As threatening faces appeared less often, participants began describing neutral faces as threatening.

When we look for signals, we’ll often broaden our definition of the signal to make more observations fit.

Along the same lines, our increasing prosperity has led us to expand our definition of what constitutes a threat. As we grow accustomed to the marvels of modern life, we scrutinize every minor indecency. As William von Hippel suggests, our adjustment to foods that don’t kill us and devices that protect us allow minor concerns to stand out in sharper relief.

“For they cannot imagine living in a world without struggle”

Struggles and challenges unite people. And if none are available, people will seek them out. As Francis Fukuyama once wrote, “if men cannot struggle on behalf of a just cause, then they will struggle against the just cause. They will struggle for the sake of struggle. They will struggle, in other words out of a certain boredom: for they cannot imagine living in a world without struggle.”

Still, rather than allowing momentary outrage to hijack our attention, we can be more thoughtful about which threats to focus on and how to stop them. We long for conflict. But we can be more vigilant about how we satisfy this desire.

A version of this post was published on Quillette.