Moral outrage is a part of human nature these days. Fact.
As one of the most common human behaviours, it’s also one of our more confusing, and it’s pretty difficult to understand why we get so wound up by other people’s business.
Anyone on Twitter, Facebook and the like will jump on the bandwagon as soon as they can, to condemn the moral failings of others.
Like the constant condemnation of Donald J. Trump for vowing to ban Muslims from the United States. Or you might remember the story of Justine Sacco, a former communications director who tweeted this: “Going to Africa. Hope I don’t get AIDS. Just kidding. I’m white!”
An incredibly stupid thing to say, granted. She definitely deserved to be slammed for it, but thousands upon thousands took to Twitter to condemn her and it left Sacco’s life and career in turmoil.
But these attackers were most likely advertising to their Twitter audiences that they were not racist.
So why do we get so riled up? It seems pretty obvious, at first. We like to denounce these wrongdoers because we want the world to be a better place.
But in a paper published on Thursday in the journal Nature, there was evidence that the roots of this outrage are actually in part, self-serving.
It can almost act as evidence that we are trustworthy, because we are trying to promote moral behaviour via punishment. And it seems expressing moral outrage actually does benefit you, in the long run, by improving your reputation.
To test this theory, researchers got their subjects to interact with anonymous strangers on the internet. Basically, one subject received some money, and they then had the chance to give up some of that money to punish somebody for being selfish.
A large proportion of these people were willing to pay to punish selfish acts, even though they had not been personally mistreated.
Next, they got a second subject to decide whether they trusted this person, after observing whether or not they had decided to punish.
If they decided to trust them, they’d earn money if the person proved to be trustworthy, but lost money if they did not.
The research found that people were way more likely to trust those who had punished selfishness. So their model and experiments supported the theory that expressing moral outrage can serve to enhance your reputation.
But maybe it’s worth keeping in mind that this behaviour could really affect others, in sometimes the most brutal of fashions.