The Dangerous Pleasures of Outrage

New interest in this emotion ignores its pleasures—and its greatest dangers.

Posted Mar 22, 2018

There is an emotion attracting new interest from behavioral economists and other psychologists.  The interest comes from uneasy respect for its political and social power.  From the rising success of extreme and reckless politics to the exposure and naming of once accepted crimes, outrage is shaping our cultural landscape. 

Outrage, research shows, has a delicate dynamic, triggered by the emotional environment.  Outrage is contagious. Some studies show that jurors who witness one juror’s expression of outrage at this crime by this person or institution, undergo a “severity shift,” resulting in a more severe verdict.  Moderation, and leniency, are also contagious, whereby outrage, and severity, are diffused by one juror’s wise accepting shrug at human foibles. 

Outrage’s contagion is often a force for good.  What was once accepted as the way of the world can be exposed as an evil by others’ outrage.  Sexual harassment, for example, when condemned by others, emerges from its safe hiding spaces to wither in the spotlight.  On the other hand, the more xenophobes declare themselves, the more readily others join them.

Understanding the volatility and unpredictability of outrage is crucial to understanding political and social momentum, but there are other issues surrounding outrage that draw my interest.  In research for my recent book Passing Judgment I discovered that outrage serves a range of purposes.  Our understanding of this culture-shaping emotion will fall short if we neglect its strange and sometimes unseemly pleasures.

Outrage is one of those emotions (such as anger) that feed and get fat on themselves.  Yet it is different from anger, which is more personal, corrosive and painful.  In the grip of outrage, we shiver with disapproval and revulsion—but at the same time outrage produces a narcissistic frisson. “How morally strong I am to embrace this heated disapproval.”  The heat and heft add certainty to our judgment. “I feel so strongly about this, I must be right!”

Outrage assures us of our moral superiority: “My disapproval proves how distant I am from what I condemn.”  Whether it is a mother who neglects her child or a dictator who murders opponents, or a celebrity who is revealed as a sexual predator, that person and that behavior have no similarity to anything I am or do.  My outrage cleans me from association.”

A positive outcome of this maneuver may be to relieve a burden of shame. All too often people feel shame for abuse inflicted upon them.  The child who is raped by a trusted priest, or the girl who is assaulted by someone she trusts may feel, “I was selected for this; I am at fault; I feel awful and therefore I am awful.”  There may be release in others’ outrage against the abuser.  “Your treatment was outrageous” relocates what is to be condemned. It re-draws the moral map.

Outrage quickly infiltrates our identity.  Our disapproval nestles in our persona. As a result, it can reach out to others and inspire discussion.  But this feature also fosters an us-versus-them environment.  We who are offended form a good group; those who are not offended are different from us.  Because outrage makes us superior, those who do not join us are inferior.  They may be ignorant (as in the slogan, “If you’re not outraged, you’re not listening”) or deluded (“How can you fall for that argument?”) or evil (“My disapproval is such that I know only a very bad person would do that”).

Outrage can also be entertaining.  Think of the flow of gossip—that universal human activity wherein we track and judge others’ personal information.  “You’ll never believe what she did!” and, “Can you imagine, he actually thought he could get away with that!” mark our thrill in sharing unofficial knowledge of people’s worth and our judgment of them.  In this way, outrage creates social norms; through gossip, we learn about behavior that would put us at risk of others’ outrage. 

The pleasure of strong negative judgment becomes so enjoyable we seek opportunities to trigger it; we ferret out others’ crimes of omission or commission, so that someone, for example, compares a political movement to Nazism, and then in return others are outraged by the comparison.  We pick apart behavior that is something like sexual assault and express outrage accordingly.  We are outraged by bias and see bias everywhere.

Often helpful and enlightened, outrage easily lapses into smugness, a kind of moral ownership.  When outrage takes this form, accompanied by its shiver of righteousness, it is very likely to be pushing us into the wrong.

References

Apter, Terri. (2018). Passing Judgment: Praise and Blame in Everyday Life. New York, NY: W.W. Norton.

Hartford, Tim.  Oxfam, #MeToo and the psychology of outrage. http://timharford.com/2018/03/oxfam-metoo-and-the-psychology-of-outrage

Sunstein, C.,  Schkade, D. and Kahneman, D. (2000). "Deliberating about Dollars: the Severity Shift." https://chicagounbound.uchicago.edu/law_and_economics/165/

Sunstein, C. (forthcoming). Growing Outrage. Behavioural Public Policy.