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How to Break the Outrage Addiction

When we perpetually chase the next angry high, it becomes impossible to engage in reasoned debate.


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Anger is thrilling, although we’re loath to admit it. Whatever our ideological positions, scrolling through social media or reading the news, we get a delicious tingle of emotion over the latest scandal, the outrage du jour. The feeling is pleasing, even if negative. It aligns us with one group or another, generates a sense of engagement, and reminds us we’re alive!

New research from the Pew Research Center reveals that after the 2016 US presidential election, use of the newly introduced Facebook “angry” emoji rose dramatically in response to politicians’ posts.

Between Feb. 24, 2016–when Facebook first gave its users the option of reacting with anger, love, sadness, amusement and surprise—and Election Day (Nov. 8), the Facebook audience for congressional posts used the “angry” emoji 3.6 million times. But during the same amount of time following the election, that number rose to nearly 14 million. Increased use of the “angry” reaction continued throughout 2017 and outpaced the other four new emoji options. “[A]nger emerged as the most popular reaction,” the researchers write.

“Anger is a public epidemic in America; it contaminates everything from media controversy to road rage to wars to mass shootings,” according to Jean Kim, a psychiatrist for the US Department of Health and Human Services and assistant professor at George Washington University. Kim says that anger is addictive—it feels good and overrides moral and rational responses because it originates from our primordial, original limbic system—the lizard brain, if you will. This is the part of our brain that responds automatically and is directly connected to the fight-or-flight response system. It controls adrenaline rushes, including those fueled by anger. Outrage gives us an unhappy high we keep trying to replicate.

The dangers of getting hooked

We’re becoming controversy junkies, as the Washington Post (paywall) puts it. You might say that’s OK because outrage about injustices—like sexual harassment and abuse—fuels positive changes and causes us to become less tolerant of dangerous behaviors, as the #MeToo movement has shown.

Yet there’s a downside, too, which is that we become addicted to unhealthy emotions and perpetually chase the next angry high. This ultimately makes it impossible—in the political context, for example—to engage in reasoned debate.

The psychology of outrage is of increasing interest to academics because it seems to be fueling society and creating “a severity shift.” The more outraged we become and the more we see others upset, the more we feel justified in being angry ourselves, according to University of Chicago legal scholars who studied jury deliberation processes. One incensed individual can inflame a group and move their views, resulting in a much larger damage award for a plaintiff  than the group initially contemplated.  The opposite is also true. A “leniency shift” occurs when people aren’t incensed about an issue.

Just a cursory glance at the tenor of cultural discussion online and in the media reveals an outsized level of anger, hyperbole, incivility, and tribalism, according to political scientist Jeffrey Berry and sociologist Sarah Sobieraj of Tufts University, authors of The Outrage Industry. This trend reinforces divides and extremist views, making moderation seem bland and tasteless—and making it ever more difficult to reason about disagreements.

Because the media business relies on audience feelings for success—and anger, fear, and anxiety are all potent emotions—individual reporters and news outlets are then motivated to generate sensations. “America has developed a robust and successful Outrage Industry that makes money from calling political figures idiots, or even Nazis,” Berry and Sobieraj write.

Complex issues are simplified to fit in a tweet or headline and the messages make us feel good, even while they make us mad. The simplification creates an illusion that problems are easier to solve than they are, indeed that all problems would be solved if only they (whoever they are) thought like us.

The result of all this extreme expression, however, is that people feel increasingly safe in expressing views that might be considered taboo, like xenophobia. In a 2017 paper published by the National Bureau of Economic Research, entitled “From Extreme to Mainstream: How Social Norms Unravel,” economists discuss two experiments they conducted that show “the unraveling of social norms in communication” can happen very rapidly.

In the first experiment, participants were offered a bonus reward if they authorized researchers to make a donation to an anti-immigration organization on their behalf. Subjects who expected their decision to be observed by the surveyor were significantly less likely to accept the offer than those told the choice was anonymous. In other words, people were more likely to approve of the donation if they didn’t think the researchers would see them being xenophobic.

However, as participants’ perceptions of Donald Trump’s popularity changed with his victory in the presidential election campaign, “the wedge between private and public behavior” was eliminated. When the experiment was conducted again, subjects felt safer about revealing their xenophobia because the new US president was vocal about his feelings. Thus, what was once seen as an extremist view and kept relatively secret became a social norm, a feeling to be revealed without compunction.

In a second experiment, subjects playing “dictator games” revealed that they judged a person less negatively for publicly expressing a political view they disagree with if that’s the majority view in a person’s social environment. So, though the subjects themselves disagreed with the view, they were receptive to the notion that it was popular and thus acceptable.

The comfortable view through a polarized lens

What we may consider shameful personally becomes justified by the prevalence of a viewpoint. And the more we communicate extremes, the more normal they seem until no middle ground can be reached.

Most notably—as observed by a Harvard paper examining academic literature on anger’s effect on judgment (pdf)—”once activated, anger can color people’s perceptions, form their decisions, and guide their behavior while they remain angry, regardless of whether the decisions at hand are related to the source of their anger.” Scientific studies show that anger makes people indiscriminately punitive, careless thinkers, and eager to take action. It colors our perception of what’s happening and skews ideas about what right action might be.

So, anger motivates us, which can be good. But perhaps not so much if all the feeling does is inspire more outraged tweets or compound feelings of division. Channeling anger into positive action requires careful thought, not just reaction, which means that our best responses arise when we’re not upset and are less intent.

Paradoxically perhaps, diplomacy and activism require great restraint—in addition to will and activity—the ability to see past the moment and emotions, examine the big picture, and think in terms of the greater good. No one who has sat at a negotiating table and been so angry they couldn’t concede some legitimacy in another person’s position has ever resolved a dispute—and famously “getting to yes” is the goal of negotiation.

On a personal level, the need to always be feeling something, anything, even anger, leaves us depleted. We rise and fall with the cultural or social tide, are tossed about by waves of someone else’s creation, when swimming steadily might serve us better, both mentally and physically.

Stepping back to move forward

The state of perpetual outrage is a health risk. Anger is associated with increased heart disease, eating disorders, car accidents, and mental health problems. Generating feeling all the time, as news outlets do for money, and individuals do to grow a following on social media, leads to a diseased society, literally and metaphorically.

To stay healthy then, it’s best to maintain a sense of perspective, to step back from—not into—the fray, especially when you’re most offended and you have nothing useful to express besides outrage. That doesn’t mean you become indifferent to injustices or passive to the point of inaction. On the contrary, keeping a cool distance from the daily events that fuel your social group’s outrage makes you more capable of contending with reality and making decisions that might improve the direction or rhetorical tenor of events in the grand scheme.

The more important the issue, the more you hold what’s at stake in a debate dear, the more critical it is to keep your wits about you rather than react wildly. Outrage won’t serve you or society unless it’s fueled wisely. In the words of the ancient Japanese guide for samurais (pdf), the Hagakure, ”Matters of great concern should be treated lightly. Matters of small concern should be treated seriously.”

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This post originally appeared on Quartz and was published July 21, 2018. This article is republished here with permission.

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