How Moral Outrage Can Turn Into Social Change

How Moral Outrage Can Turn Into Social Change
Art Float for Social Change. Credit: Fabrice Florin, Flickr

While outrage is generally considered a hurdle in the path to civil discourse, new research suggests outrage—specifically, moral outrage—may have beneficial outcomes, such as inspiring people to take part in long-term collective action.

In a literature review, researchers combined findings from the fields of moral psychology and intergroup psychology to investigate the dynamics of outrage, which they define as anger at the violation of one’s own moral standards.

“…anger, if it is effectively communicated, can be leveraged into collective, social action…”

In moral psychology, outrage is generally considered a negative emotion that leads to, at worst, an escalation of the conflict, or, at best, less-involved forms of protest, often called virtue signaling and slacktivism, according to Victoria L. Spring, a doctoral candidate in psychology at Penn State. However, she adds that these studies often focus on the immediate effect of outrage, unlike studies in 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,” says 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 researchers, who present their analysis in Trends in Cognitive Sciences, cite a study that showed that women who read that the majority of men have hostile sexist beliefs, exhibit anger, which also predicted intentions to join collective action for equal salaries. Women who showed anger at the sexist beliefs were also were more likely to actually participate in political action later.

The researchers also say that more research should be done on the cumulative, long-term effect of expressing moral outrage, not just the immediate aftermath of an interpersonal exchange, says C. Daryl Cameron, an assistant professor of psychology and research associate in the Rock Ethics Institute.


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“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,” says Cameron.

In social media, for example, the researchers cite another study showing that many people judge more negatively others who express outrage at racist or sexist comments by adding to angry comments against the perpetrator.

Labeling any emotion as exclusively good, or exclusively bad, may lead to problems in creating social change.

“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,” says 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.”

The idea of labeling any emotion as exclusively good, or exclusively bad, may lead to problems in creating social change, Spring says, adding that rhetoric that promotes 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,” says 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 say that future studies should explore this perspective, which unites the moral and intergroup psychology fields.

“We want to present a more integrated approach,” says 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.”

Mina Cikara, assistant professor of psychology at Harvard University, is a coauthor of the paper.

The National Science Foundation supported this work with grants to both Spring and Cameron.

Source: Penn State

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