Alternative MethodsConventional Methods
Subscribe to our newsletter
The latest Core Spirit news, articles, and products, sent straight to your inbox.


The Psychology of Moral Outrage and Why It Is Self-Serving
Mar 29, 2018

Wilfred Scott
Core Spirit member since Dec 24, 2020
Reading time 5 min.

When people publicly rage about perceived injustices that don’t affect them personally, we tend to assume this expression is rooted in altruism—a “disinterested and selfless concern for the well-being of others.” But new research suggests that professing such third-party concern—what social scientists refer to as “moral outrage”—is often a function of self-interest, wielded to assuage feelings of personal culpability for societal harms or reinforce (to the self and others) one’s own status as a Very Good Person.

Outrage expressed “on behalf of the victim of moral violation” is often thought of as “a prosocial emotion” rooted in “a desire to restore justice by fighting on behalf of the victimized,” explain Bowdoin psychology professor Zachary Rothschild and University of Southern Mississippi psychology professor Lucas A. Keefer in the latest edition of Motivation and Emotion. Yet this conventional construction—moral outrage as the purview of the especially righteous—is “called into question” by research on guilt, they say.

Feelings of guilt are a direct threat to one’s sense that they are a moral person and, accordingly, research on guilt finds that this emotion elicits strategies aimed at alleviating guilt that do not always involve undoing one’s actions. Furthermore, research shows that individuals respond to reminders of their group’s moral culpability with feelings of outrage at third-party harm-doing. These findings suggest that feelings of moral outrage, long thought to be grounded solely in concerns with maintaining justice, may sometimes reflect efforts to maintain a moral identity.

To test this guilt-to-outrage-to-moral-reaffirmation premise, Rothschild and Keefer conducted five separate studies assessing the relationships between anger, empathy, identity, individual and collective guilt, self perception, and the expression of moral outrage.

For each study, a new group of respondents ( solicited through Amazon’s Mechanical Turk program) were presented with a fabricated news article about either labor exploitation in developing countries or climate change. For studies using the climate-change article, half of participants read that the biggest driver of man-made climate change was American consumers, while the others read that Chinese consumers were most to blame. With the labor exploitation article, participants in one study were primed to think about small ways in which they might be contributing to child labor, labor trafficking, and poor working conditions in “sweatshops”; in another, they learned about poor conditions in factories making Apple products and the company’s failure to stop this.

After exposure to their respective articles, study participants were given a series of short surveys and exercises to assess their levels of things like personal guilt, collective guilt, anger at third parties (“multinational corporations,” “international oil companies”) involved in the environmental destruction/labor exploitation, desire to see someone punished, and belief in personal moral standing, as well as baseline beliefs about the topics in question and positive or negative affect. Here’s the gist of Rothschild and Keefer’s findings:

1. Triggering feelings of personal culpability for a problem increases moral outrage at a third-party target. For instance, respondents who read that Americans are the biggest consumer drivers of climate change “reported significantly higher levels of outrage at the environmental destruction” caused by “multinational oil corporations” than did the respondents who read that Chinese consumers were most to blame.

2. The more guilt over one’s own potential complicity, the more desire “to punish a third-party through increased moral outrage at that target.” For instance, participants in study one read about sweatshop labor exploitation, rated their own identification with common consumer practices that allegedly contribute, then rated their level of anger at “international corporations” who perpetuate the exploitative system and desire to punish these entities. The results showed that increased guilt “predicted increased punitiveness toward a third-party harm-doer due to increased moral outrage at the target.”

3. Having the opportunity to express outrage at a third-party decreased guilt in people threatened through “ingroup immorality.” Study participants who read that Americans were the biggest drivers of man-made climate change showed significantly higher guilt scores than those who read the blame-China article when they weren’t given an opportunity to express anger at or assign blame to a third-party. However, having this opportunity to rage against hypothetical corporations led respondents who read the blame-America story to express significantly lower levels of guilt than the China group. Respondents who read that Chinese consumers were to blame had similar guilt levels regardless of whether they had the opportunity to express moral outrage.

4. “The opportunity to express moral outrage at corporate harm-doers” inflated participants perception of personal morality. Asked to rate their own moral character after reading the article blaming Americans for climate change, respondents saw themselves as having “significantly lower personal moral character” than those who read the blame-China article—that is, when they weren’t given an out in the form of third-party blame. Respondents in the America-shaming group wound up with similar levels of moral pride as the China control group when they were first asked to rate the level of blame deserved by various corporate actors and their personal level of anger at these groups. In both this and a similar study using the labor-exploitation article, “the opportunity to express moral outrage at corporate harm-doing (vs. not) led to significantly higher personal moral character ratings,” the authors found.

5. Guilt-induced moral outrage was lessened when people could assert their goodness through alternative means, “even in an unrelated context.” Study five used the labor exploitation article, asked all participants questions to assess their level of “collective guilt” (i.e., “feelings of guilt for the harm caused by one’s own group”) about the situation, then gave them an article about horrific conditions at Apple product factories. After that, a control group was given a neutral exercise, while others were asked to briefly describe what made them a good and decent person; both exercises were followed by an assessment of empathy and moral outrage. The researchers found that for those with high collective-guilt levels, having the chance to assert their moral goodness first led to less moral outrage at corporations. But when the high-collective-guilt folks were given the neutral exercise and couldn’t assert they were good people, they wound up with more moral outrage at third parties. Meanwhile, for those low in collective guilt, affirming their own moral goodness first led to marginally more moral outrage at corporations.

These findings held true even accounting for things such as respondents political ideology, general affect, and background feelings about the issues.

Ultimately, the results of Rothschild and Keefer’s five studies were “consistent with recent research showing that outgroup-directed moral outrage can be elicited in response to perceived threats to the ingroup’s moral status,” write the authors. The findings also suggest that “outrage driven by moral identity concerns serves to compensate for the threat of personal or collective immorality” and the cognitive dissonance that it might elicit, and expose a “link between guilt and self-serving expressions of outrage that reflect a kind of ‘moral hypocrisy,’ or at least a non-moral form of anger with a moral facade.”

via Reason.com


Leave your comments / questions for this practitioner

To write a comment please
or
Services
Category filter
Concern filter
Type filter
Sort
 

All categories

Personal Development Coaching
$89 USD
coaching session
One-on-one Confidence coaching

Are you ready to take your confidence to the next level and achieve your goals and dreams?

Our one-on-one confidence coaching sessions are tailored to your unique needs and goals, and are designed to help you overcome any self-doubt or limiting beliefs t…

Darinka Burovska
Spiritual Coaching
$99 USD
coaching session
Spiritual Coaching

This service is a single online meeting during which we address a goal or issue in your life. This coaching is intended to address the biggest issues / questions, ones you might call existential.

I help people make breakthroughs in the most important are…

Doug Fraley
Cognitive Psychology
$250 USD
consultation
Check Your Vibes! Find out how much Positive and Negative energy you have!

The Energy Leadership™ Index (ELI) assessment is the proprietary, research-backed assessment tool, created by iPEC, that takes something abstract, like the way a person views the world, and turns it into something tangible—a metric that you can see and fe…

David Jacks
Cognitive Psychology
$20 USD
consultation
Learn your Brain Type!!

When you learn your brain type, you learn what parts of your brain are overactive and what parts of your brain are underactive. This quiz is based off of Dr. Amen’s 7 types of ADD. However, it doesn’t matter whether or not you have ADD - you have a brai…

David Jacks

Related Articles

View All
27 min.
Social Psychology
Sep 30 2019
What Is Family Therapy? + 6 Techniques & Interventions

We all begin this life with a family, whether that family is made of blood relatives, adopted parents, a close-knit neighbourhood, or a foster family. This family that we get when we are born affects every aspect of our lives, from our first moments to ou…

Demi Powell
7 min.
Dream Interpretation
Sep 4 2019
How Dreams Shaped The Evolution Of Spirituality And Religion

Carl Jung, the Swiss founder of depth psychology and early proponent of dream analysis, was the first to seriously study what he called “big dreams” — vivid and memorable dream experiences that occur rarely, but when they do, can have a lasting impact on …

Demi Powell
11 min.
Psychology
Mar 29 2018
Why Is There Evil in the World and How Did It Evolve?

Evil, it can seem, is all around us. Hitler. The Rwandan genocide. Ted Bundy. Every time you read the news or watch television, bad behaviour that causes harm is on display.

These days, the word ‘evil’ has religious connotations. It’s tied up with morali…

Priscilla Cain
3 min.
Developmental Psychology
Apr 29 2021
Special needs children: Tips for managing better

Children with Autism, ADHD, Down Syndrome, Neurological disorders, Sensory impairment, Learning disabilities and Cerebral Palsy need extra attention; care and therapies which help them become independent and responsible adults.

Many such children are ver…

Welcome Cure Pvt. Ltd
Registered individuals enjoy all the possibilities of Core Spirit.