The science of getting angry: Do moral outrage and mob mentality help or harm us?

As often as these things go, it's imperative to turn to science for answers. Such as, why do we get wound up about incidents that happen around the world; incidents over which we have no control? Common sense notwithstanding, we go ahead and log on to social media (Twitter, Facebook, Instagram, and the ilk) to let the immediate world know what's bothering us. Soon, someone else posts an opposing view, which gets us hopping mad — rinse, lather and repeat.

Why do we give in to outrage and what does science have to say about it? Well for one, there are countless platforms to express our frustrations on. Two, some of the platforms give us the freedom to be anonymous — such as newspapers online — which, in turn, encourages participation and risk-taking. Three, getting angry is rather easy when there's always something to be angry about; a judiciously-available trigger.

According to Vox, there are great upsides to our "instinctual morality".

It allows us to speak up for the weak or the mistreated. It helps us correct wrongs we see in the world. It's given rise to a mode of activism on the internet that can rally hundreds of thousands in just hours. But on the tangled web, our moral instincts can misfire.

But when do "moral instincts misfire"? Steven Pinker, the Canadian-born American cognitive scientist and professor of psychology at Harvard University, defined moral goodness as the quality that gives us the sense that we are "worthy" human beings.

Moralisation is a psychological state that can be turned on and off like a switch, and when it is on, a distinctive mind-set commandeers our thinking... people feel that those who commit immoral acts deserve to be punished.

 The science of getting angry: Do moral outrage and mob mentality help or harm us?

The Office's Dwight Schrute illustrates what it's like to be caught in social media outrage.

Oscar Wilde, on the other hand, had a simpler definition. He termed morality as the attitude "we adopt towards people we personally dislike". Wilde's definition of morality is more widespread today: one just has to look at the gau rakshaks, who are out to get 'anti-nationals' for an example. Or at the outburst behind Cecil the lion's death. It went to the point where random people wrote terrible Yelp reviews about the dentist, because he killed a lion.

Wilde's version of morality, although popular, can be damaging. After the storm of outrage following Cecil's killing by Walter Palmer, the Minnesota dentist was forced to go into hiding and close his practice. Palmer, a professional hunter, became the world's most hated person overnight — Peta even called for his death, declaring that he should be "extradited, charged and preferably hanged" — receiving hate mail and death threats. The hunter became the hunted.

In Palmer's case, morality outrage was detrimental.

After Brock Turner, a former Stanford student, sexually assaulted an intoxicated woman, he received a paltry six-month sentence that sparked outrage in every nook and corner of the internet. The victim wrote a powerful 7,000-word letter to her assailant calling herself "every woman" — representing other women who have been in similar situations. The assailant's father too released a letter defending his son by calling his punishment "a steep price to pay for 20 minutes of action out of his 20 plus years of life". A million people signed a petition to remove Judge Aaron Persky from the bench.

How did outrage help in this case? For one, rape laws haven't changed. Neither have the assumptions surrounding rape — it's still the victim's fault, her promiscuity is pertinent or that alcohol is an excuse. What has changed is this — USA Swimming, the main organisation for competitive swimming in America, banned Turner for life, effectively ending his career as a competitive swimmer. Vox notes that even though Turner might be eligible for other privileges — seeing as he is a white male — he might be subjected to 'collateral consequences', which include loss of a professional license, voting rights and restriction of welfare benefits student loans. Further, Persky has been removed from another case of sexual assault, because the district attorney's office lacks "confidence that Judge Persky can fairly participate" in the hearing.

For Justine Sacco, however, outrage did not end on a good note. While the furore surrounding Cecil’s killing did ignite a debate over the controversial activity of trophy hunting of an endangered species, and a need to monitor it closely, even as the politics of it remains tricky, Sacco was only subjected to trial by social media. Sacco, a PR person, who was heading to Africa, fired up a tweet before boarding her plane.

Going to Africa. Hope I don't get AIDS. Just kidding. I'm white!

Twitter reacted in a similar way to Justine Sacco's tweet on Africa and AIDS.

Twitter went berserk and Sacco reportedly became the number one worldwide trend on the social networking site on 20 December, 2015. One stupid tweet ruined Justine Sacco’s life, wrote The New York Times. Publicly shamed — one Twitter user even went to the extent of going to the airport, clicked a picture to tweet her arrival — Sacco deleted her Twitter account and lost her job. Meanwhile, someone set up a website with her name which redirects people to Aid for Africa, a non-profit alliance.

A 2013 study by Ryan Martin, a psychology professor at the University of Wisconsin, looked at how people express their anger online and its emotional impact: it was determined that people who take to ranting online were generally angrier than the general population, besides finding an entertainment value in the activity, giving them an incentive to return. Another 2013 study by Beihang University, Bejing, noted that anger is more influential than joy. The group studied Weibo, a Twitter-like website:

We find the correlation of anger among users is significantly higher than that of joy, which indicates that angry emotion could spread more quickly and broadly in the network.

This anger, seemingly, has the potential to reduce issues to a hashtag than to open them up for debate. It can be easily damaging, as seen in the cases of Walter Palmer and Justine Sacco. Or in the case of Melania Trump, who has been put down for her nude photos, ‘slut-shamed’ as being unfit for the post of the First Lady. Or her husband Donald Trump, who pretty much gives the Internet outrage fodder every day. But this whirling maelstrom of anger and odium, which translates into outrage, helps the most when it comes to driving traffic to websites.

If not the complete answer, science gives us significant clues as to why we like to shame people online. New York Magazine's Science of Us talks about how stories that were widely shared online were happy in nature, while those that invited nasty comments belonged to the data set termed arousal, or in other words, stories that evoked feelings of anger and distress. Furthermore, shaming (whether online or offline) gives us a clue about the evolution of human behaviour: that we like to indulge in a little something called third-party punishment where we derive joy from punishing strangers.

Stephen Colbert outraging is all of us.

And we do this for a number of reasons: According to a neuro-imaging study, altruistic punishment is a decisive force in the evolution of human cooperation. Our brains' pleasure centres light up when we "punish" people.

Effective punishment, as compared with symbolic punishment, activated the dorsal striatum, which has been implicated in the processing of rewards that accrue as a result of goal-directed actions... Our findings support the hypothesis that people derive satisfaction from punishing norm violations and that the activation in the dorsal striatum reflects the anticipated satisfaction from punishing defectors.

It's a reason why we tend to bond easily with strangers who share our dislikes rather than our likes. A study by Benedikt Herrmann, Christian Thöni and Simon Gächter that documented the existence of antisocial punishment found that disciplining opportunities (by way of punishment) are socially beneficial only if complemented by strong social norms of cooperation. Sometimes, though, our outrage veers off track. It takes the form of slacktivism, it snowballs into mob mentality, it eventually misfires. The reasons for that can only be speculative: we're all eager to have a finger in every pie, a say on every issue, and thanks to the speed with which social media sites operate, shaming is just that much quicker. And add to that an ever-growing audience and lesser accountability online, you have a working recipe for outrage.

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Updated Date: Aug 15, 2016 07:52:43 IST