Science says your moral outrage is just self serving BS

Your moral outrage isn’t fooling anyone but yourself. At least not anymore.

Recently conducted research suggests that, as many of us have suspected all along, moral outrage expressed on behalf of the victim of perceived third party transgressions is often self serving. I’m pretty sure there are many ways in which this could be so (see also: virtue signalling), but in this case it appears the study authors found it to be an attempt to ease personal feelings of guilt.

Bowdoin college psychology professor Zachary Rothschild and University of Southern Mississippi psychology professor Lucas A. Keefer conducted a series of studies in which subjects were presented with a fake news article about either labor exploitation in developing countries or climate change.

For studies using the climate-change article, half of participants read that the biggest driver of man-made climate change was American consumers, while the others read that Chinese consumers were most to blame.

“With the labor exploitation article, participants in one study were primed to think about small ways in which they might be contributing to child labor, labor trafficking, and poor working conditions in “sweatshops”; in another, they learned about poor conditions in factories making Apple products and the company’s failure to stop this. After exposure to their respective articles, study participants were given a series of short surveys and exercises.”


The abstract says:

Why do people express moral outrage? While this sentiment often stems from a perceived violation of some moral principle, we test the counter-intuitive possibility that moral outrage at third-party transgressions is sometimes a means of reducing guilt over one’s own moral failings and restoring a moral identity. We tested this guilt-driven account of outrage in five studies examining outrage at corporate labor exploitation and environmental destruction. Study 1 showed that personal guilt uniquely predicted moral outrage at corporate harm-doing and support for retributive punishment. Ingroup (vs. outgroup) wrongdoing elicited outrage at corporations through increased guilt, while the opportunity to express outrage reduced guilt (Study 2) and restored perceived personal morality (Study 3).


Translated: The guiltier subjects felt, the madder they got at other people, and the madder they got the better they felt about themselves.

Some key findings, explained on

Triggering feelings of personal guilt increases moral outrage at a third party. People who read articles blaming American for climate change were way madder at multinationals than those who read the blame-China articles.

The more guilty one feels, the greater the desire “to punish a third party through increased moral outrage at that target.” People who identified as guilty of practises contributing to sweatshop labour exploitation were madder at, and more out for the blood of, perpetrators of sweatshop labour exploitation.

“The opportunity to express moral outrage at corporate harm-doers” inflated participants’ perceptions of their own morality. Americans who read the blame-America-for-climate-change article saw themselves with “significantly lower personal moral character” than readers of the blame-China article. But if they were given the opportunity to blame and get angry at big corporations their perception of their own moral character was boosted back to blameless levels.

Translation: posting that angry Facebook status doesn’t actually make you a better person but it might make you feel like a better person.

On the other hand passive social media activism isn’t as useless and worthy of scorn as some would like to think either.

As someone who has had to fundraise a fair amount of money for charity recently, I can say that anything that raises awareness can be helpful to a cause. Liking stuff on Facebook can actually help! I promise!

Rothschild and Keefer’s findings are published  in the latest edition of Motivation and Emotion.

(Image: Copyright: logoboom / 123RF Stock Photo)

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