News Archive 2009-2018

Rothschild: Moral Outrage Can Be Self-Serving Archives

Assistant Professor of Psychology Zachary Rothschild is interested in why people get angry about certain things, particularly the moral outrage some people display over a perceived injustice to another. In a paper he recently co-authored with University of Southern Mississippi psychology professor Lucas Keefer, Rothschild argued that this anger can sometimes be motivated by self-interest rather than a genuine concern for others.

“When I first got into this topic about five years ago,” said Rothschild, “most literature depicted moral outrage as anger over a violation of moral standards, an emotion that’s really about justice and helping people who are being harmed.”

Rothschild was a little skeptical of this argument because of the earlier research he had done into the psychology of scapegoating.

“This is when people displace blame onto other groups. A lot of the time this is not an objective version of what’s happening, and we can be motivated to see harm-doing in others as a way of distracting ourselves from aspects of our own behavior that we feel subconsciously guilty about.”

Rothschild said this made him think that the outrage this provokes could be part of that same process. “When we think about the bad things we might be doing, like harming the environment or indirectly promoting sweat shop labor through the products we buy, we might feel the need to transfer the blame onto some other harm-doer, to find a bigger, badder bogeyman in order to vindicate ourselves.” In this way, he said, our guilt turns to outrage, enabling us to feel good and continue to regard ourselves as what he calls a “moral person.”

One example cited by in the paper was the outrage expressed by many Americans on hearing reports of dire working conditions at facilities in China where iPhones were manufactured. Many in the US were outraged on behalf of these workers, even though they continued to buy iPhones and other Apple products.

To test the theory, Rothschild and Keefer carried out several studies in which anonymous volunteers were subjected to online tests. “We did five tests, in which people were given news articles to read that had been manipulated in some way, and asked to give their responses.”

For example, he explained, there were two versions of a story about climate change: One presented it as being the fault of Americans, for their consumer habits and reliance on fossil fuels. “In this instance, respondents tended to express outrage towards oil companies, rather than themselves.”

Widespread protests followed revelations that Chinese workers making Apple products were forced to work under dire conditions. Photo: Wikimedia Commons

The other version portrayed it more as being the fault of China, as the world’s biggest polluter. “When China was presented as the bad guy,” said Rothschild, “this outrage towards oil companies was not expressed—so no feelings of guilt, no outrage.”

Rothschild said he initially got some pushback on this idea, as people accused him of saying that their outrage was not genuine, charges that Rothschild denied. “This is not what I am saying. It’s not my intention to suggest that someone’s outrage is disingenuous, because the emotion they experience is real. In fact, if someone is consciously pretending to be angry to deflect from their behavior, it undermines the whole process.

“One of the big lessons of social psychology,” said Rothschild, “is that we are very bad at knowing why we do what we do. We don’t often have direct access to our motives.”