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The Psychology of Moral Outrage

From Oscars acceptance speeches to guild management.

If you don't know what moral outrage is, you didn't pay attention during the acceptance speeches at the Oscars. Back in January at the Golden Globes, the host Ricky Gervais made fun of the celebrities' tendency to lecture the audience about moral matters and following his monologue, the acceptance speeches were a little subdued. But this year at the Oscars, the knives came out.

This piece is not against moral outrage, nor do I disagree with the moral values that fuelled the actors' and actresses' moral outrage on stage. In fact, in most cases, I wholeheartedly agree with them. But given that our public discourse is now completely dominated by moral outrage (on both sides of the political spectrum), this is a psychological phenomenon we need to know more about.

How can we explain the new culture of moral outrage all around us?

One may be tempted to say that it's because the other side of the political spectrum is doing outrageous things, and this is clearly true in many cases. But a deeper explanation is that according to recent studies, moral outrage is good for publicity. Social media content is far more likely to be shared and retweeted if it expresses moral outrage. So even if you are not morally outraged, it could be in your interest to pretend that you are. It may help media outlets or politicians to pretend they are morally outraged.

The crucial findings about moral outrage, however, show that it has an emotion-regulating effect. It was demonstrated that moral outrage alleviates guilt and buffers threats to one’s moral identity. Moral outrage is a very good thing if you are insecure about your own moral standings. It reassures you that you are not in the wrong — you couldn't possibly be as you are doing the right thing with your moral outrage. This is a reason to be a bit suspicious of anyone whose moral outrage is too visible. Either they are just faking it for publicity reasons or if they are not, this shows that there are some moral cracks here that they try to cover up with moral outrage.

This is not to say that moral outrage is never justified. It very often is, and the last few weeks have not been easy to go through without being outraged. But the real problem with moral outrage is that it is easy to get used to. There is now even a slang for this: 'outrage fatigue.' If we are morally outraged 24/7, we won't even notice when truly morally despicable things happen. And if we do, we have no way of alerting others. If our moral outrage-o-meter is always at maximum volume, what can we do if something truly outrageous happens?