Remember when that dentist shot a lion?

Photographer: Adam Bettcher/Getty Images

It's an Outrage! See? Look How Outraged I Am!

Faye Flam is a Bloomberg View columnist. She was a staff writer for Science magazine and a columnist for the Philadelphia Inquirer, and she is the author of “The Score: How the Quest for Sex Has Shaped the Modern Man.”
Read More.
a | A

Science is starting to shed some light on the curiously continuous cycle of moral outrages. One week, it’s students protesting the use of Woodrow Wilson’s name. The next, it’s Icelanders hurling yogurt at the parliament building. This week, the social media world is aflame over the way Southwest Airlines employees forced a young man to leave a plane after he spoke on a cell phone in Arabic. And just last summer (but many outrages ago), comedian Jimmy Kimmel cried outraged tears over the shooting of a lion named Cecil.

There are big mysteries here. Why are some people more prone than others to express moral outrage? Why are people set off by different triggers? Why is one animal killing or tax shelter a travesty and another business as usual?

Psychologists say it all starts to make sense if you think of outrage as a form of display. Expressing it advertises a person’s views and allegiances to potential allies. And the more popular a victim's cause, the less risky it is to join in displaying your umbrage.

In an attempt to test this display hypothesis, a group of psychologists from Yale created an outrage-provoking situation in the lab. One of two players was randomly handed some money and allowed to share it with the other player, or not.

The interesting part was the behavior of a third party, who acted as a bystander. The bystander, if outraged enough by the tightwad behavior of one of the players, could inflict “punishment” in the form of a fine. The bystander would gain no part of this fine and in fact would have to pay to inflict it -- and yet about 30 percent of the bystanders found it worth the cost.

The punishers ended up profiting in the end, thanks to a subsequent game geared to measure trust. There, other players placed more trust in those who had inflicted fines on the tightwads. The psychologists published their findings last month in the journal Nature.

They also popularized the display idea in a New York Times opinion piece, using it to explain an infamous incident involving a woman who provoked massive online attacks by tweeting a bad joke about race and AIDS. “Whether or not they were conscious of it, these attackers were most likely advertising to their Twitter audiences that they were not racist.” Not too surprisingly, this display itself offended various people for various reasons -- some who defended the original tweeter, others who wanted to demonstrate that they were sooooooo anti-racist that they found the detractors' displays of anti-racism quite inadequate. And so we get the first round of meta-outrage.

Psychologist Jillian Jordan, who led the Yale experiment, said she wasn't trying to suggest that people were faking outrage for the purpose of looking good. She believes people genuinely feel the outrage. The point was to explain the urge to share it so ostentatiously.

In real-world cases, most people unconsciously tally costs and benefits, said Harvard psychologist Max Krasnow. There is a cost to outrage, in terms of social risk. The cost shrinks when there are more and more people expressing it in solidarity. If you’re the only person lobbing yogurt at the Icelandic Parliament, you might well get arrested. But if you’re part of a teeming mob, your collective display of outrage can lead to the ousting of the prime minister.

Why do some incidents provoke almost universal outrage and others set off only those in certain age groups or of particular political leanings? One of the most universal sources of outrage is stealing or hoarding resources, said psychologist Eric Pederson. The theory is that this is ingrained in humans because our ancestors' foraging cultures survived by sharing; if Joe helped himself to what others hunted and gathered, but then did not share his good fortune when he found berries or killed a wildebeest, he’d get in deep trouble.

Humanity’s deeply rooted antipathy for cheaters helps explain the outrage over the tax evaders revealed by the Panama Papers. But in other cases, said psychologist Robert Boyd, the definition of what's outrageous is dictated by less objectively obvious cultural norms. Humans are wired to pick up cultural rules and norms, and to aim outrage at violators, he said. Cultural norms vary by political leanings, geography and other factors. Often there’s a large generation gap.

Harvard’s Krasnow said it all comes back to the fact that displays are aimed at potential allies. An outraged person may have no personal tie to a given issue, but outrage can signal sympathy with those who do. This can be quite noble and selfless, not entirely self-serving; the two blur together in ways that allow human civilization to work to the extent that it does.

Are people outrage-impaired if they didn’t rail against the Cecil shooting, the bad AIDS joke or Southwest Airlines? Not necessarily. In the case of the woman who told the bad AIDS joke, some of her detractors were later accused of bullying; they may have demonstrated heartlessness rather than sympathy. “It’s a complicated game we’re playing," Krasnow said, "and sometimes the best strategy is to say nothing.”

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.

To contact the author of this story:
Faye Flam at fflam1@bloomberg.net

To contact the editor responsible for this story:
Philip Gray at philipgray@bloomberg.net