Study: Guilt predicts expressions of moral outrage

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New research suggests that moral outrage may be driven in part by feelings of guilt.

The five-part study of more than 1,000 U.S. adults found that feelings of guilt predicted expressions of moral outrage at wrongdoers. The study also found evidence that directing moral outrage against another could help to defend one’s own moral identity.

PsyPost interviewed the study’s corresponding author, Zachary K. Rothschild of Bowdoin College. Read his responses below:

PsyPost: Why were you interested in this topic?

Rothschild: It seemed like everywhere I looked I saw people expressing anger at perceived harm-doers, be they greedy corporations or illegal immigrants. At the same time, many of those expressing outrage were directly or indirectly contributing to, or at least benefiting from, the injustices they were rallying against. This led me to wonder whether people’s expressions of outrage might sometimes be tied to their own feelings of responsibility for illegitimate harm-doing.

What should the average person take away from your study?

These studies do not suggest that our outrage is fake, but they do suggest that these feeling may not always be solely about justice either. More specifically, they show that feeling of guilt can motivate expressions of anger that help us maintain a belief in our own moral goodness.

So when we feel the stirrings of righteous anger over another’s harm-doing, we should ask ourselves whether those feeling are allowing us to avoid our own culpability and whether the actions we are supporting are likely to restore justice for the victims, or just make us feel better about ourselves.

Are there any major caveats? What questions still need to be addressed?

One major caveat is that while guilt was a significant predictor of outrage, it did not explain all the outrage we observed. People who reported low levels of guilt still reported moral outrage, just not as much, on average, as those who felt more guilt. Similarly, allowing people to think about their own moral goodness reduced, but did not eliminate expressions of outrage. In the same way that moral outrage is not “just” about justice, it’s also not “just” about guilt. Rather, guilt is simply one strand in a complex web of factors that can drive feelings of outrage. Future research is needed to identify other individual and situational factors that may contribute to such emotional displays.

Is there anything else you would like to add?

I can certainly understand how one might be tempted to use this research to discredit the anger of one’s political opponents. However, we found that guilt predicted outrage regardless of whether an individual identified as being politically liberal or conservative. We have also found similar effects using both prototypically conservative and liberal targets of outrage (Corporations & Illegal Immigrants, respectively). Thus, embracing the view that “our outrage is genuine, and their outrage is not” would mean falling victim to another self-serving bias.

The study, “A cleansing fire: Moral outrage alleviates guilt and buffers threats to one’s moral identity“, was also co-authored by Lucas A. Keefer.

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