Skip to main content

Verified by Psychology Today

The Psychology of Outrage in the Political World

Outrage signals the violation of a moral boundary.

So, when I got this week's New Yorker magazine, they printed a series of letters about the infamous Obama cover. In one way or another, the letters were about outrage. Some people were legitimately outraged by the cover. Some were trying to figure out whether they should have been outraged. Some were skeptical of the outrage generated by the cover. (If you have been hiding under a rock for the past few weeks, here's a copy of that cover.)

There are two issues I from the psychology perspective that are worth addressing. First, what sorts of things in our psychological world lead to this kind of outrage. Second, there were clearly more people who expressed outrage at this magazine cover than actually felt it. What psychological purpose is served by expressing this sort of outrage?

Outrage is an emotion that has three components. First, it has negative affect. That is, it is a bad feeling. Second, it has high arousal. That is, it is a strong and powerful emotion. Third, it occurs when people experience a violation of a moral boundary. This last bit needs more explanation.

Psychologists like Jon Baron and Phil Tetlock have suggested that people hold what they call protected values or sacred values. A protected or sacred value is a belief or tenet that a person will not permit to be violated. For example, some people may treat life as sacred. Any discussion that involves taking a life crosses a moral boundary. Proposals that involve taking a life are met with outrage. For example, people who hold life as a sacred value, and consider a fetus to be a living creature express outrage at the concept of abortion. This outrage is a very strong and very negative emotional reaction.

Clearly, there were some people who felt deep outrage at the New Yorker magazine cover. Some people may have felt that racial equality is a sacred value and may have felt that this cover played on fears of racial inequality. Others may have been outraged at the idea that labeling someone a Muslim should be considered a negative quality. (One eloquent letter in the magazine addressed this issue.) For those who were outraged by the cover, then, they experienced a violation of a sacred value, one they might not even have recognized they held.

One point to make here is that the cover was clearly intended as satire. The artist was trying to make light of the outrageous claims that have been made about the Barack and Michelle Obama. Most of the people who were outraged by this cover clearly understood that it was intended as a joke. That said, sacred values are not something that people are typically willing to joke about. For someone holding a sacred value, then, this cover was simply not amusing despite its intent.

Of course, this isn't the whole story. I suspect that many people who expressed outrage may have found the cover funny, or perhaps confusing, or perhaps simply uninspiring. So, what is the psychological value of expressing outrage that you don't actually feel?

There are two key aspects of outrage that I'll discuss here.

First, outrage signals affiliation. That is, while someone is experiencing legitimate outrage, it is impossible to have a reasoned discussion with them. Highly arousing emotional states are just not consistent with rational discussion. So, if you want to express any kind of affiliation with an outraged party, the easiest way to do it is to express outrage yourself. That marks you as a member of the club of people who found that event to be morally repugnant.

Second, outrage is also a signal to others. That is, deep down, we know that someone expresses outrage when they have been offended. People are offended when we have crossed their moral sensibilities. So, if someone expresses outrage, then they are turning an event into a moral issue. There are deep substantive issues about race, religion, patriotism, and politics that are raised by this cartoon. However, if the magazine cover is cast as a moral violation, then people are reluctant to talk about it. Indeed, the psychologist Phil Tetlock argues that people are actively opposed to talking about and thinking about situations that violate sacred values. So, taking the stance of outrage makes it nearly impossible to talk about issues that are quite difficult to discuss anyhow. That's a clever move for a politician who does not want to risk a discussion on a highly-charged topic. So, I recommend being very suspicious of politicians who express outrage. They are typically using it as a shield to protect them from difficult discussions.

More from Psychology Today

More from Art Markman Ph.D.

More from Psychology Today