While outrage is often seen as an obstacle in the path to civil debate, in a new study a team of psychologists suggests that moral outrage — anger at the violation of one’s own moral standards — may be an important catalyst for people to take part in long-term collective action.

For their analysis, the researchers from Pennsylvania State University looked over a variety of studies investigating the dynamics of outrage. They presented their new findings in the journal Trends in Cognitive Sciences.

Depending on the field of psychology, moral outrage is either framed in a positive or a negative light. In moral psychology, for example, outrage is generally seen as an adverse emotion that leads to, at worst, an escalation of the conflict, or, at best, virtue signaling (a showing of moral superiority) and “slacktivism,” according to Victoria L. Spring, a doctoral candidate in psychology at Penn State. Slacktivism refers to supporting a political or social cause via social media or online petitions, but involving very little effort or commitment.

However, she added these studies often focus on the immediate effects of outrage, unlike studies in the field of intergroup psychology, which often suggest that outrage can lead to long-term positive effects through collective action.

“Some intergroup psychologists, who are psychologists who study group relations, conflict and conflict resolution, as well as some sociologists, have proposed that anger, if it is effectively communicated, can be leveraged into collective social action,” said Spring. “Anger can then serve as a signal that a specific transgression is broadly considered to be unjust by one’s peers.”

For example, the authors cite a study showing that women who believe the majority of men have hostile sexist beliefs tend to exhibit anger; this anger then predicted intentions to join collective action for equal salaries. In addition, women who were angry at the sexist views were more likely to participate in political action later.

More research should be conducted on the cumulative, long-term effect of expressing moral outrage, not just the immediate aftermath of an interpersonal exchange, said Dr. C. Daryl Cameron, assistant professor of psychology, Penn State and research associate in the Rock Ethics Institute.

“By drawing on the intergroup relations literature, we’re suggesting that there is actually a lot of work in this other area of psychology suggesting that outrage can get you to care, can get you motivated to sign petitions, can get you to volunteer, things which have outcomes that are much longer term than signaling,” said Cameron.

On the other hand, the researchers cite another study showing that people who express outrage at racist or sexist comments on social media by piling on angry comments on the perpetrator, are often judged more negatively.

“Yes, studies do seem to show negative effects of viral blaming for the blamer, nevertheless, we have seen cases where viral blaming has led to positive change over time,” said Cameron. “So, even if there are negative short-term effects for the blamers or the blamed, there could still be long-term effects where you have a pro-social action.”

Importantly, labeling any emotion as exclusively good, or exclusively bad, may lead to problems in creating social change, Spring said. She added that rhetoric promoting only empathy, which is often described as a positive emotion, could have long-term negative effects on motivation to effect change.

“We’ve noticed a conflict in popular discourse that people often pit outrage and empathy against each other,” said Spring. “However, people may leverage empathy norms to suppress outrage. This can be particularly damaging if the anger is being expressed by a marginalized group.”

The researchers said that future studies should be conducted using this perspective that unites the moral and intergroup psychology fields.

“We want to present a more integrated approach,” said Spring. “We think the downsides of outrage have been thoroughly discussed, so we want to present some potential upsides of outrage that we may have not paid as much attention to.”

Source: Penn State