From: Scientific American
Can Outrage Be a Good Thing?
Lately, it has started to feel as if outrage is everywhere. On both sides of the political aisle, people have taken to social media—and to the streets—to express their fury over perceived injustices. The religious right demands a boycott against a popular coffee chain for removing religious iconography from their holiday cups; meanwhile, the left rallies marches in protest against police brutality against young Black men. In the midst of all this anger, both liberal and conservative pundits have started raising the question: has outrage drowned out civil dialogue in America?
The moment you read the title of this article, you likely had an immediate, gut-level reaction. Perhaps you thought of course, outrage helps get things done! Or maybe you thought that’s ridiculous, outrage just drives people further apart. I would venture to guess, though, that most people have an intuition that outrage is ultimately a bad thing—that it gets in the way of constructive dialogue, further dividing our increasingly-partisan nation.
A similar discussion has been going on in psychology, in two separate subfields: moral psychology (the scientific study of how we judge what’s right and wrong) and intergroup psychology (the study of how different groups—e.g., genders, races/ethnicities, religions—interact). As those of you who voted for option number two—“outrage is bad”—might have predicted, some research from moral psychology suggests outrage drives disproportionately aggressive behavior against wrongdoers. But on the flip side, and consistent with “outrage is good” option number one, work in intergroup psychology demonstrates outrage can serve as a glue binding people together in activism against injustice—increased anger predicts support for non-violent solutions to intractable conflicts like the one between Israel and Palestine.
So if the experimental results on outrage are mixed, what’s the truth about outrage?
This is the question that inspired me—and my colleagues Daryl Cameron and Mina Cikara—to write a paper (now out in Trends in Cognitive Sciences) aimed at untangling the mixed research on outrage. In the paper, we suggest that maybe the problem is how we’ve been thinking about outrage to begin with. So much of the dialogue about moral outrage seems to be about whether outrage as an emotion is fundamentally “good” or “bad.” Pundits and politicians accuse those on the other side of the political aisle of “faux outrage”—manufactured anger over perceived injustices. Even in psychology, researchers have suggested moral outrage is just a thin façade disguising more egotistical motives (e.g., to “virtue signal”). Even the term we use to describe outrage—calling it moral outrage, specifically—might bias us toward viewing outrage itself as a moral act.
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I believe “outrage” as unfocused affect will be detrimental as a path to any positive outcome. To learn efficiently and thereby bring about a mutually satisfying outcome in any disagreement, there must be a task-focused orientation, not a personal threat perception. There is only a limited amount of diffusion of affective energy tolerable to solve the cognitive task at hand. I developed a model (see pp.145-6) in our book From Principles of Learning to Strategies for Instruction(Seidel, et al, 2007), which while applied to the academic world, can be readily applied to conflicts involving “outrage”.
Outrage is often necessary to motivate the energies and focus of individuals and groups of people who have been marginalized and felt relatively powerless for a very long period of time. I contend that like any other emotion, outrage is neither good nor bad, it just is. The more relevant question is what does one or a group do with their outrage. Are the actions primarily constructive or destructive? Are they motivated by gang mentality only, or informed by an equal dose of logic? Linda Eaton, LCSW
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