An Evolutionary Perspective on Cancel Culture
Why canceling individuals comes with pain.
Posted January 25, 2023 | Reviewed by Vanessa Lancaster
- Social media plays a major role in today’s cancel culture.
- We can think of a public cancellation as a large-scale form of estrangement.
- Research on the evolutionary psychology of estrangements shows that these experiences have many painful outcomes.
The list of celebrities and other public figures who have fallen from grace seems to be growing. When people talk about cancel culture today, they're referring to an approach to treating missteps and transgressions with public shaming to the point that someone is eventually treated as if they don’t exist. Someone who is canceled is essentially an untouchable.
When people cross certain lines, it makes sense that they might be cut out of the lives of others. Of course, there are all kinds of ways to transgress against others, and the story of the broader human experience is replete with transgressions.
People do all kinds of bad things. They lie, cheat, and steal. They say things that they are sure to regret. They let their emotions get the better of them and are capable of harming the emotions, bodies, possessions, and family members of others. In short: People are, as is true of all organisms, imperfect.
Cutting people out of one’s social circle (or life) is a common response to being trespassed against. This is why there are so many estranged relationships in the world. Perhaps publicly canceling someone to the point of ostracism can be thought of as a large-scale estrangement.
Estrangements Are on the Rise, and They Hurt
In research related to this topic, my team found that on average, young adults have about four people in their world from whom they report being fully estranged (Geher et al., 2019). When considering ghosting experiences, which comprise a form of estrangement that is relatively novel as it largely depends on social media, our team found that young adults report, on average, about 16 people whom they have ghosted or who have ghosted them (Di Santo et al., 2022). Based on these data, social media access seems to increase the number of estrangements people experience.
I’d say that this is a pretty big problem when thinking about the modern human condition. Estrangements of any kind tend to correspond to all kinds of adverse psychological and social outcomes, such as emotional instability, borderline personality tendencies, insecure attachment, depression, perceptions of low social support, and life dissatisfaction, to name just a few (Di Santo et al., 2022).
A simple implication of all this is: As the prevalence of estrangements in people’s lives increases, we can fully expect mental health concerns to increase. Especially among adolescents and young adults, this is exactly what we have seen in the age of social media (Twenge, 2019).
The degree to which estrangements are at the root of increases in mental health issues is unknown at this point and will certainly require further research. At the very least, there might be a connection.
Estrangements in Evolutionary Perspective
An evolutionary approach to any psychological phenomenon seeks to understand that phenomenon in terms of our evolved psychology, often considering how the ancestral human environments in which our minds evolved may shed light on why the phenomenon exists in the first place.
Estrangements are painful and problematic for all kinds of evolutionary reasons. For the lion’s share of evolutionary history, all humans were nomads. Our ancestors lived in small clans capped at approximately 150 (Dunbar, 1992). Family members and other familiar individuals regularly surrounded people. Under such conditions, being estranged from even a small number of others would have consequences for someone’s capacity to survive and reproduce. Getting shunned by others under ancestral conditions could have been deadly.
Estrangements are signals that anticipate ostracism–a dangerous and unpleasant state of affairs indeed. For these reasons, it makes sense that our ancestors would have had strong emotional responses related to them.
Cancel Culture as Estrangement Culture
If estrangements are on the rise, partly due to the increased use of social media, which allows people to estrange others at the press of a single “block” button (as discussed further in this post on the evolutionary psychology of ghosting), all the research on the adverse effects of estrangement suggests that, simply, we can expect to see increases in social and emotional problems on a large scale.
Let’s take a minute to think about how this relates to cancel culture. In a sense, a cancellation is tantamount to a large-scale, public estrangement. Someone who is canceled in the public sphere–after sending a hasty tweet or being outed for some transgression in their past or being called out as a hypocrite, etc.–essentially experiences a level of estrangement from others that would have been off the charts under ancestral conditions.
This is not to say that some actions don’t deserve such treatment. For instance, Kanye West’s recent pro-Hitler comments are difficult to come back from. Andrew Cuomo’s recent fall from grace was also, in the minds of many reasonable people, fully warranted based on a clear pattern of abuse of power and sexual misconduct.
Still, it is at least reasonable to consider the psychological pain that must accompany an all-out public cancellation. While the canceled may well have reaped what they sowed, they are also human. It’s useful to understand the psychological nature of that kind of experience.
We know that a high number of estrangements tends to correspond to adverse psychological consequences. Applied to the topic of cancellation, we can infer that cancellation likely has profound adverse psychological consequences, leading to emotional and social difficulties in one’s life.
A World of Cancellation Is a World Full of Pain
Cancel culture seems to thrive on moral outrage, often as part of a virtue-signaling process. In other words, if we publicly cancel Teresa for her abhorrent behavior, we may partly be doing so to raise our own status (Can you believe what Teresa did? I would never even think of doing something like that!).
Without question, virtue-signaling and its sibling, moral grandstanding, are rampant in the world today (Grubbs et al., 2019). Cancel culture is, in a sense, a natural consequence of both. As the ability to communicate via technologies such as social media increases, moral grandstanding becomes easier to engage in. Along the way, publicly shaming others–the core of cancellation–becomes easier as well. There’s a lot of pain connected with this.
Cancel culture is partly the result of a world in which people are able to bash others publicly at the push of a button–with a potentially global audience.
Clearly, there are actions that cross ethical lines and are unforgivable. The ability to publicly shame someone–often in a mob-like manner–is easier now than ever before in the human experience. While many who are “canceled” may well have had it coming, there is no question that, based on the existing research on the adverse outcomes associated with being cut off from others, the canceled are likely in a lot of pain.
Without question, social-media technology has played a major role in the advent of today’s cancel culture. As Nicole Wedberg and I argue in our book Positive Evolutionary Psychology, perhaps companies building these kinds of platforms would be smart to hire leaders who are educated in human evolutionary psychology–people who think about how these technologies might play out given our understanding of our evolutionary roots.
Because, at the end of the day, technologies are supposed to help people–not cause large-scale problems and pain.
Note: A variant of this piece was published for my Substack, The Human Condition. © 2023 Glenn Geher
Di Santo, J. M., Montana, D., Nolan, K., Patel, J. P., Geher, G., Marks, K., Redden, C., McQuade, B., Mackiel, A., Link, J., & Thompson, G. (2022). To Ghost or To Be Ghosted: An Examination of the Social and Psychological Correlates Associated with Ghosting. EvoS Journal: The Journal of the Evolutionary Studies Consortium, 12, Sp. Iss (1), 43-62.
Dunbar, R. I. M. (1992). Neocortex size as a constraint on group size in primates. Journal of Human Evolution, 22(6), 469–493.
Geher, G., Rolon, V., Holler, R., Baroni, A., Gleason, M., Nitza, E., Sullivan, G., Thomson, G., & Di Santo, J. M. (2019). You’re dead to me! The evolutionary psychology of social estrangements and social transgressions. Current Psychology. doi: 10.1007/s12144-019-00381-z
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
Twenge, J. M., Cooper, A. B., Joiner, T. E., Duffy, M. E., & Binau, S. G. (2019). Age, period, and cohort trends in mood disorder indicators and suicide-related outcomes in a nationally representative dataset, 2005-2017. Journal of Abnormal Psychology, 128, 185-199.