The Complicated Relationship Between Outrage, Virtue Signaling, and Real Social Change

OutrageDeep State Conspiracy! Immigrant Concentration Camps! Hate Crimes Up! African Christians Massacred! Xi Snubs Pope! Crowd Shouts Lock Her Up! New York Infanticide! Homeless People in Cages! . . .

People who write headlines and create memes get paid to trigger emotions: surprise, wonder, delight or—more often these days—outrage.

Triggering strong emotions is the easiest way to get clicks and shares. Outrage works especially well in that regard, which is why your social media feed can seem like a steady stream of offenses that leave you sputtering. Of course, many things going on in our world are outrageous, but distorted information can make it seem like these horrors are everywhere. Media producers seek maximum click count, even if that means telling stories that are one-sided or simplistic, featuring cartoon villains rather than real-world solutions. Headline writers take those oversimplified stories and further simplify by pulling the most provocative idea or quote, not necessarily the one that best reflects the center of the story itself. And then meme creators hone the provocation to a single image or snarky phrase.

It’s a very effective formula for getting attention. And editors of ad-dependent media in a world of fierce competition may feel they have little choice. But what’s good for driving clicks isn’t necessarily good for you as a person or even for the social causes that get you going.

What is Outrage?

The word outrage comes from a French word meaning beyond rage, but outrage is actually a mix of anger and disgust. The blend of these two makes for one potent brew. Consider the ingredients.

  • Anger is an activating emotion. It sends surges of adrenalin through our bodies. It energizes us, making us feel and even be temporarily stronger. It prepares our bodies for the fight part of the fight-flight response. Long-term it also increases blood pressure and can alter cardiac health.
  • Anger is disinhibiting. It lowers the threshold on behaviors that might otherwise be restrained by fear or prudence—or other competing emotions and values.
  • Anger is righteous. It elicits a strong desire to punish and a sense that any aggression on our part is warranted.
  • Anger is intimidating. It conveys to others that the cost of questioning or challenging us will be high.
  • Disgust is visceral, literally. It operates via neurons in the gut and a part of the brain associated with nausea, the insula. Because it evolved to protect us from contagions and poisons, disgust reactions are instinctive and swift.
  • Once disgust gets attached to a specific experience—for example a certain food gets associated with vomiting or a politician gets associated with debased behavior—the association can persist despite reason and evidence to the contrary.
  • Both anger and disgust operate as moral emotions, along with empathy, shame and guilt. Moral outrage is a common reaction when a person’s sense of fairness or propriety is violated.

Put it all together and what you get is a powerful physical and psychological reaction that has some equally powerful consequences—for both good and ill.

How does Moral Outrage work?

Outrage can be triggered in response to something we find personally threatening, but it also can be triggered when we think another person, community, social institution or cherished ideology is threatened. In social and political movements, the boundaries between self-interested outrage and more altruistic outrage can get pretty blurry.

When we perceive one person harming another, moral outrage can activate us to intervene, even at our own expense. Scholars who study the evolutionary origins of altruism once thought that costly punishment of third-party offenders was the epitome of moral behavior, because it seemed unlikely to be motivated by self-interest. For example, if I see someone beating a dog and I start yelling at the person, drawing his attention so that he hits me instead, that seems like pure altruism. The same is true if I express outrage online about something that doesn’t affect me. But careful controlled research suggests that things are more complicated than that.

Moral outrage, and the self-sacrificing behaviors it drives, appear to have three functions. 1. Outrage, like other moral emotions activates us to police bad behavior and so enables us to better live in community with each other. 2. Expressing outrage or punishing perceived evil-doers signals to others the trustworthiness of the persons doing the judging or punishing. 3. Expressing outrage or acting on it can enhance our sense of self as a good person. All of these operate to some degree at an instinctive level, below the level of conscious decision-making.

So, when members of the Right squawk about left-wing outrage as virtue signaling, they are partly right and partly wrong. Yes, expressing moral outrage can be a (conscious or unconscious) way of signaling shared moral values in a tribe of likeminded people, simultaneously enhancing public status and personal sense of righteousness. And yes, these dynamics themselves sometimes become rather outrageous. But that ignores the very real moral commitments at play, the fact that some outrages have more important consequences than others, and the power of outrage to activate people in the service of beneficial social change.

Indignation vs. Insight

Deriding outrage as mere virtue signaling or—on the other hand—getting swept up in viral rage makes people less capable of weighing complicated realities. In both cases, we become less able to correctly identify what actually motivates people on the other side or the causal factors at play. Instead we tell ourselves, They are posers! They are stupid! They are haters! They are evil!

These answers are emotionally satisfying because they give us a sense of superiority, and thinking those thoughts acts as a symbolic form of vengeance. But do they get us inside the head of the other person? Hardly. In fact, jeering at people or essentializing their behavior makes understanding of their inner world almost impossible. It turns them into virtual stormtroopers and orcs.

Think about it. As a moviegoer, did you ever ask yourself what was going on in the mind of a stormtrooper or orc? What might they worry about, who might they cherish, what it is that they care about enough to die for?

Even the questions sound weird.

In fiction, bad guys do bad things just because they are bad. They like to destroy things and hurt people, and they like being evil because they just do. But that’s rarely how things work in real life. So, when we tell ourselves that some person or group is just bad to the bone, that’s a problem, because if we don’t know what motivates ugly behavior, it gets a lot harder to fix it.

When people want to change their own dysfunctional thinking and behavior, they often seek out a safe space like a therapist’s office, because when we feel safe we are more able to explore what’s going on below the surface: Why does this keep happening? Where does it come from? What is it that I’m really after? Is there a better way to get there? But basking in outrage and, conversely, jeering at people who feel outraged, make it difficult if not impossible to explore these questions.

Consider these two statements: New York doctors can legally murder fully-developed babies. ICE is putting children in cages. Depending on which side of the political divide you are on, you likely think one of these is true and one is not. But both of these statements strip complicated situations of detail, nuance, context, and moral trade-offs.

If you are on the left you probably can describe some important, complicated, and moral reasons that a doctor might do a third-trimester abortion. If you are on the right, you probably can describe some important, complicated, and moral reasons that a border patrol agent might put a child immigrant in a locked facility. But whichever side you are on, the outrage reaction makes it unlikely that you can articulate the other side’s reasoning, acknowledge their moral motivations, or come up with a better way to address their objectives. You just want to stop them.

Deepening Divides

Most people haven’t heard the nerdy term motivation attribution asymmetry, but the concept is key to understanding why tensions run so high across the left-right political divide. The term was coined by international psychology researchers who study intractable conflict. They want to figure out why people so often fail to use known strategies of conflict resolution and can’t come to agreements that seem reasonable to outsiders. Groups they studied included Palestinians and Israelis, and American Republicans and Democrats. They found that people in each of these groups tend to believe that their own side is motivated by love of ingroup (own family, country, compatriots), while their adversaries are motivated by hate. People who hold this belief—we are motivated by love but they are motivated by hate—are less willing to negotiate or vote for compromise solutions. They also tend to talk about the other side in essentialist terms, describing their badness as a fundamental, unchangeable part of who they are.

People on the Left of the political spectrum, like me, see ourselves driven largely by compassion, especially for the most vulnerable. (We claim to care about the middle class, too, but there’s always someone hurting more.) We are about fairness and caring. But if one listens carefully to the words used to describe Trump voters, police officers, the rich, business leaders, or even white men broadly, the language of hate isn’t hard to find. The steady intravenous drip of outrage in media and social media keeps our indignation topped up, and when it overflows, we spew. Thanks to motivation attribution asymmetry, people on the Right hear and remember our hateful language more readily than the language of compassion that is at the core of our self-image. It fits what they already think of us, and it sticks. The exact same dynamic plays out on the other side of the political spectrum.

Outrage, in other words, plays a role in energizing activism, but it also is feeding dynamics that make can left-right conflict more intractable. And intractable conflict—when we lose our ability to compromise or believe in win-win solutions or even think of our opponents as anything other than evil—can make social change (or even social stability) nearly impossible. The only resolution left open is one that is immensely costly and can sow seeds of resentment that linger for generations: one party dominating the other by force.

Played by Bad Actors and Well-Intentioned Allies

While some headline editors, meme creators and trolls use outrage generation as an attention- or profit-seeking strategy, others want us to be in conflict with each other because it serves their ends. A recent example is Russia’s social media engagement during the 2016 U.S. election. Putin may have had a preference for Trump in office, but the Kremlin’s top goal appears to have been to foster deep divisions in American society regardless of who won the election.

Journalists from USA Today analyzed over 3500 Facebook ads purchased by the Russian-based Internet Research Agency. They found that the ads mostly sought to fuel racial tensions, sometimes by talking about race directly or sometimes by focusing on related issues like immigration or Islam. Over half mentioned race specifically. A quarter centered on crime and policing, with ads on both sides of the issue being placed simultaneously. University of Wisconsin researcher Young Mie Kim described this as a strategy of “attempting to destabilize Western Democracy by targeting extreme identity groups.” I might have described it more as an attempt to move people into more extreme identity groups.

Once people get manipulated to dislike or distrust each other, conflict can take on a life of its own because all too often we react to divisive manipulation by doing and saying ugly things that deepen the conflict. The ads may be fake, but the reactive polarization that follows is real. The perception of intractable conflict becomes self-fulfilling.

This same dynamic can emerge when activists are simply trying to fight for causes they believe in. Consider, for example, political primaries in which competing candidates often share many values and policy priorities. As contenders seek to differentiate themselves, and as their followers try to make the strongest possible case for the person they prefer, they often turn to moral language, interpreting their adversary’s worst moments in the worst possible way and escalating until that person appears to be an intellectual or moral wreck. Once the primary is over, that image isn’t easily reversed, and embittered partisans reach the point that they would rather stay home than vote for the person they have grown to despise.

Unwitting Hosts?

It has been said of ISIS that they never could have done as much harm to our economy as we did to ourselves by overreacting. Terrorism is the strategy of the puny, so terrorists rely on victims inflicting self-harm as we struggle to deal with the pain and fear that they perpetrate. Similarly, those who seed outrage, whether warranted or not, bank on triggering a cascade of emotions and behaviors that advance their cause.

When we impulsively share articles and memes that trigger us; when we think, Ha! This one says it all!, when retell a story that makes us feel so incredulous that we can’t even fathom the thinking of the actors involved; maybe we should be a little more, well, incredulous—at least if we want to figure out causes and solutions that fit our complicated world. That feeling of incredulity should be a sign that your bullshit detector is at work. Not that it’s always going to be right, mind you.

Sometimes things are truly unspeakable. Sometimes people are thoroughly bad and need to be stopped at any cost—just not as many as we think. In the words of Tim Minchin, “Most of society’s arguments are kept alive by a failure to acknowledge nuance. We tend to generate false dichotomies, and then try to argue one point using two entirely different sets of assumptions, like two tennis players trying to win a match by hitting beautifully executed shots from either end of separate tennis courts.”

Outrage is a powerful emotion, and pricey, and it serves us best when it is proportional to the harms being done and the solutions ignored. When we simply lend our voices or Facebook pages to an indignant mob, we risk becoming part of the problem.

Valerie Tarico is a psychologist and writer in Seattle, Washington. She is the author of Trusting Doubt: A Former Evangelical Looks at Old Beliefs in a New Light and Deas and Other Imaginings, and the founder of  Her articles about religion, reproductive health, and the role of women in society have been featured at sites including The Huffington Post, Salon, The Independent, Free Inquiry, The Humanist, AlterNet, Raw Story, Grist, Jezebel, and the Institute for Ethics and Emerging Technologies.  Subscribe at


About Valerie Tarico

Seattle psychologist and writer. Author - Trusting Doubt; Deas and Other Imaginings.
This entry was posted in Musings & Rants: Life and tagged , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

11 Responses to The Complicated Relationship Between Outrage, Virtue Signaling, and Real Social Change

  1. Doug says:

    I see the same thing in social media that I saw in the church: the desire to promote your position is so strong, because you believe you are so right, that you are willing to throw truth under the bus in order to advance your position. I can only hope that in time more people will learn to recognize manipulation and develop a healthier skepticism.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. hostirad says:

    For the past three years I’ve been meaning to write about moral outrage for my Psychology Today blog. No need to now; this article is definitive, way better than anything I could have written. Not only are the ideas right on, the article was written with an amazing amount of self-insight and perspective. Well-done, Valerie.

    Liked by 1 person

  3. jeremy1952 says:

    It frustrates me that I don’t know a good way to share this with my faith community. It is absolutely brilliant.

    Liked by 1 person

  4. Swarn Gill says:

    Excellent points and well written. We live in a time when behaviors are reduced to the extremes so as delegitimize real criticism and justified emotional reactions. It’s toxic.

    Liked by 1 person

  5. Carlo says:

    Wow! Exceptionally well written!

    Liked by 1 person

  6. bluearkie says:

    YOW! This is truly a clear-eyed look at our national situation today. I”m going to print it out because it’s like a crash course. There is an ancient Chinese curse that goes: “May you live in interesting times.” It describes our world today.

    Liked by 1 person

  7. thompsonsbrent says:

    Ironically, now I want to create a meme that simply says, “BE INCREDULOUS!”

    Liked by 1 person

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