In May, an off-duty British Army soldier named Lee Rigby was murdered, in broad daylight, in what is likely the most incredibly brazen and baffling act of violence the neighborhood of Woolwich, London, had ever seen. Two men purposely ran over Rigby with their car, then got out and attacked him with knives and meat cleavers until he died. While many aspects of this shocking crime were initially a mystery, the actual sequence of events, at least, was clear—thanks to numerous perspectives and recording devices, including witness reports, CCTV surveillance video, a hand-written confession letter, and, most disturbingly, an on-the-scene, blood-covered confession delivered to a bystander’s video camera.
Recently, two psychologists teamed up to analyze and identify the emotions that have the most impact on the outcome of jury trials. They had participants in mock trials read scenarios and look at crime-scene evidence, and keep track of their feelings throughout the experiment. The researchers found that anger paired with disgust makes up the powerful mix of emotions that we often call “moral outrage.” The authors also concluded that this particular response—more than sadness, more than the desire for vengeance, more than any other emotion—is the one that most often brings jurors to vote to convict, and to be confident in those convictions.
“Humans intuitively understand what moral outrage is,” said Jessica M. Salernoo, co-author of the study, published in the journal Psychological Science. “However, researchers debate its emotional components. We wanted to investigate the relationships between anger and disgust since emotions tend to co-occur with each other.” Salerno and her co-author, Liana C. Peter-Hagene, note that this mix of emotions is entirely involuntary, and the jurors can often be unaware that they are feeling it—which makes it that much more effective.
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