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Why Does Outrage Often Feel So Good?

Virtue signaling and the multiple functions of outrage

  • Outrage can be a way to expose wrongdoers. But public expressions of outrage may also serve to improve how others see the expresser.
  • The importance of status to the ancestors of modern humans could help explain the endurance of derogation as a social behavior.
  • Outrage may elevate an individual's status partly by suggesting that the person is above others.

On the surface, outrage seems like it should be an adverse, negative emotional state. After all, the core of outrage is anger, which, going back to the work of Paul Ekman (see Ekman & Friesen, 1986), is one of the basic emotions, with primarily negative emotional connotations.

These days, perhaps due to the rise in social media usage—or perhaps due to the highly politically polarized nature of the modern world (see Motyl, 2018)—or maybe both—outrage has become a part of everyday life. You don't have to scroll too deep into your Facebook feed to see political or social statements that are oozing with outrage. And the nature of outrage very much cuts across partisan lines.

designecologist / Pexels
Source: designecologist / Pexels

In today's world, there is a lot of finger-pointing and a lot of "blaming the other side" for all kinds of problems. Social psychologists call this kind of thinking "in-group/outgroup" reasoning (see Billig & Tajfel, 1973), and it seems to be as prevalent now as ever. And not only are people blaming "the other side" for the woes of the world, but, with the help of social media platforms, we are doing so publicly and in a way that is often dripping with outrage .

Two Basic Kinds of Outrage

In recent work on the evolutionary function of outrage, my research team (see DeJesus et al., 2021) explored outrage in response to some kind of betrayal or transgression in a social relationship. As we see it, that kind of outrage is a truly negative emotional experience that includes anger coupled with a public component, partly with the implicit function of outing a transgressor within some social community.

But there's another kind of outrage, one that is less personal. And one that may well have a very different set of underlying motives. According to Rothchild and Keefer (2017), moral outrage often is less about outing someone else for problematic behavior than it is about inflating one's own sense of self by buffering threats to one's own moral identity.

Outrage, Moral Grandstanding, and Virtue Signaling

Expressed outrage that seems to primarily bolster one's own sense of self often goes by the term virtue signaling (see Grubbs et al., 2019; Miller, 2019). This brand of outrage, often framed as moral grandstanding , seems to have the function of underscoring (or signaling) one's own virtuous attributes by pointing out non-virtuous attributes in others. Such outrage might be seen in statements such as the following:

  • How could anyone even think such a thing?
  • Who would do that?
  • What kind of person would do that?
  • Can you believe that she did that?
  • I would never do that!

...and so forth.

In a sense, the content actually doesn't matter. We can easily think of examples of someone from the political left making such statements ( Can you believe that they are still calling this voter fraud? Outrageous! Who are these people who deny science and data!? ). And we can easily think of examples of people from the political right making such statements ( If there is global warming, how come it snowed in Texas this past winter? What is wrong with these people!?! ).

Importantly, this post is decidedly NOT a political post. Sure, I have my own political orientation and opinions, but this post is about a more basic psychological process that underlies modern-day politics across the political spectrum.

The kind of outrage expressed in these cases is decidedly different than the kind of outrage that one might feel and express after being slighted by a close other.

Virtue-signaling-based outrage seems to be much more about sending out signals about oneself. It is essentially putting others down in an (often unconscious) effort to raise oneself up .

Relativistic Standing and the Human Social-Emotion System

At the end of the day, humans are complex apes, motivated by a broad array of emotional and psychological processes that evolved across thousands of generations of selection (see Geher, 2014 ). In short, humans are just as imperfect as any other organisms (butterflies, dandelions, sharks, paramecia, etc.) that have been fortunate enough to pass the hurdles of natural selection across the past 3.6 billion or so years.

This is partly why human happiness is more complex than it seems like it should be. For our pre-agrarian ancestors, one's status within one's clan was a critical predictor of survival and reproductive success. With this in mind, any signals that brought one down in the eyes of others would have essentially been evolutionarily threatening. On the other hand, signals that one was, somehow, above others would have had potentially positive effects regarding that individual's long-term survival and reproductive-relevant outcomes. For this reason, it seems that human happiness is highly relativistic in nature (see Hill et al., 2010).

Derogating others, even generic others whom you've never met, is an ancient human strategy. It is often more about raising one's own status than it is about anything else. And that is exactly what virtue signaling is all about when you get down to it. It is an expression of an ancient set of human processes that have the primary function of raising the status of the person who is expressing the outrage about the other. It is for this reason that, however ironic it might seem, expressing outrage may actually feel good.

Bottom Line

Outrage is a funny emotion. On the surface, it seems like a negative, unpleasant emotion. After all, its root is the basic emotion of anger. However, humans are a complicated ape. Our emotion systems evolved largely to help us obtain and maintain strong social standing within small-scale communities, as doing so was evolutionarily adaptive for our ancestors. Expressing outrage about the behavior of others, often in the form of virtue signaling, seems to partly function to elevate the status of the person expressing the outrage. And to the extent that this strategy may be effective, we can understand why it is often the case that expressing outrage often makes people feel good rather than bad.

Understanding the evolutionary roots of outrage may well prove pivotal in helping us to understand what this emotion is all about and, perhaps, this understanding may help people step back and be kinder and more empathic in dealing with others.

Because at the end of the day, we've all got a ticket on the same ride.

References

De’Jesús, A. R., Cristo, M., Ruel, M., Kruchowy, D., Geher, G., Nolan, K., Santos, A., Wojszynski, C., Alijaj, N., DeBonis, A., Elyukin, N., Huppert, S., Maurer, E., Spackman, B. C., Villegas, A., Widrick, K., & Zezula, V. (2021). Betrayal, Outrage, Guilt, and Forgiveness: The Four Horsemen of the Human Social-Emotional Experience. The Journal of the Evolutionary Studies Consortium, 9(1), 1-13.

Ekman, P., & Friesen, W. V. (1986). A new pan-cultural facial expression of emotion. Motivation and Emotion, 10, 159-168.

Geher, G. (2014). Evolutionary Psychology 101. New York: Springer.

Grubbs, J. B., Warmke, B., Tosi, J., James, A. S., & Campbell, W. K. (2019). Moral grandstanding in public discourse: Status-seeking motives as a potential explanatory mechanism in predicting conflict. PloS one, 14(10), e0223749. https://doi.org/10.1371/journal.pone.0223749

Hill, S. E., & Buss, D. M. (2010). Risk and relative social rank: positional concerns and risky shifts in probabilistic decision-making. Evolution and Human Behavior, 31, 219-226.

Miller, G. (2019). Virtue Signaling. Cambrian Moon.

Motyl, M. (2018). How Ideological Context Influences Psychological Research. Invited Presentation for the Heterodox Psychology Workshop. Orange, CA.

Rothschild, Z. K., & Keefer, L. A. (2017). A cleansing fire: Moral outrage alleviates guilt and buffers threats to one’s moral identity. Motivation and Emotion, 41, 209–229.

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