Outraged but Sympathetic: Ambivalent Emotions Limit the Influence of Viral Outrage

Outraged but Sympathetic: Ambivalent Emotions Limit the Influence of Viral Outrage

By
Takuya Sawaoka, Benoît Monin
Social Psychological and Personality Science. October
23, 2019

Viral outrage—the piling up of online condemnation in response to offensive remarks—is a common expression of moral judgment in the digital age. We examined whether viral outrage is effective in convincing observers that an offender is blameworthy. Across seven studies, participants (N = 3,406) saw racist, sexist, or disrespectful posts with accompanying expressions of outrage and evaluated the offender. As more people expressed outrage, observers believed it was more normative to express condemnation but also felt that the outrage was more excessive, thus inspiring both more outrage and more sympathy toward the offender. Greater outrage increased condemnation toward the offender; greater sympathy decreased it. These two processes operated in opposition and suppressed one another. These findings held even when the offense was relatively benign and even when the offender was a high-status public figure. Overall, people’s ambivalent reactions of outrage and sympathy limit the influence of viral outrage in inspiring condemnation.