Take care about moral outrage, say psychologists; it can be self-serving

A cleansing fire: Moral outrage alleviates guilt and buffers threats to one’s moral identity

Zachary K. Rothschild, , and Lucas A. Keefer  25 February 2017, DOI: 10.1007/s11031-017-9601-2

Rothschild, Z.K. & Keefer, L.A. Motiv Emot (2017). doi:10.1007/s11031-017-9601-2

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). Study 4 tested whether effects were due merely to downward social comparison and Study 5 showed that guilt-driven outrage was attenuated by an affirmation of moral identity in an unrelated context.

Summary by Elizabeth Brown |

Outrage expressed “on behalf of the victim of [a perceived] moral violation” is often thought of as “a prosocial emotion” rooted in “a desire to restore justice by fighting on behalf of the victimized,” explain Bowdoin psychology professor Zachary Rothschild and University of Southern Mississippi psychology professor Lucas A. Keefer in the latest edition of Motivation and Emotion. Yet this conventional construction—moral outrage as the purview of the especially righteous—is “called into question” by research on guilt, they say.

Feelings of guilt are a direct threat to one’s sense that they are a moral person and, accordingly, research on guilt finds that this emotion elicits strategies aimed at alleviating guilt that do not always involve undoing one’s actions. Furthermore, research shows that individuals respond to reminders of their group’s moral culpability with feelings of outrage at third-party harm-doing. These findings suggest that feelings of moral outrage, long thought to be grounded solely in concerns with maintaining justice, may sometimes reflect efforts to maintain a moral identity.