Molly Crockett: How Social Media Amplifies Moral Outrage

Profile: Dr. Molly Crockett, Assistant Professor of Psychology at Yale University and Lab Director of the Crockett Lab, New Haven, CT, USA.

If moral outrage is a fire, is the internet like gasoline? 

Historically, moral outrage – and its prosocial benefits – evolved in the context of small-scale societies where face-to-face communication was the most common form of social interaction.

But what happens when moral outrage plays out in a different sphere – like the digital world? 

Neuroscientist Molly Crockett and her Yale-based lab have been investigating how moral outrage - the expression of anger and disgust at the violation of a moral standard - plays out on social media and contrasting this with how it has traditionally been expressed in non-digital social settings. More broadly, they are aiming to address the question: is moral outrage in the digital age a threat to democracy? 

Dr. Crockett believes that the online sphere could be fuelling the fire of moral outrage in at least two ways. First, it’s increasing the frequency with which we are exposed to moral outrage. People report learning about immoral acts more frequently from online media than other media forms such as print, television and radio (Crockett, 2017). As people devote more and more time and attention to online material, moral outrage is increasingly becoming part of their day-to-day experience. Second, it’s increasing the spread of moral outrage. Nothing goes viral like morally outrageous content.  Research has shown that anger is the most predictive factor in determining what makes content spread (Berger & Milkman, 2012). Moreover, in a study looking at tweets on gun control, same sex marriage and climate change every moral-emotional word in a tweet increased its likelihood of being shared by 20% (Brady et al. 2017). Given the tendency of morally outrageous content to make such effective click-bait, the promotion of moral outrage could be a particularly lucrative strategy for advertising companies and online platforms that earn revenue from capturing attention. 

But what about the reasons why people engage in moral outrage - does this differ in the digital age? According to Dr Crockett, the dominant framework for understanding why moral outrage in evolved in human society has tended to focus on its ability to promote prosocial behaviour, such as cooperation within groups. Many lab experiments have repeatedly shown that  people are more likely to cooperate when punishment of norm violation is possible. However, more recent evidence suggests that people don’t only express moral outrage to benefit the wider social group. Often personal rewards come into play - such as the personal satisfaction of ‘taking revenge’ (Crockett et al. 2014), and the boost to your own reputation for being seen to be upholding and enforcing a moral norm (Barclay et al. 2006; Jordan et al. 2016). 

Digital platforms, Dr. Crockett argues, have the potential to amplify the personal benefits from expressing moral outrage. Reputational benefits - which accrue to the individual - can be much larger on an online platform where the audience can be orders of magnitude larger than the offline sphere. Further, the personal costs and risks of punishing immoral behavior on digital platforms are considerably lower.  Options for punishing a wrongdoer in the offline world include things like gossip, verbal confrontation and physical aggression, which involve increasing degrees of effort and risk of retaliation. In contrast, online options such as retweeting content, or signalling disgust via negative emojis or comments can be performed with the click of a button. Moreover, people can punish from behind the protection of their screen and take refuge in the safety in the masses of other online participants. 

However, Dr. Crockett also stresses that digital platforms can also potentially reduce the social benefits from moral outrage. A key social function of outrage is to identify behaviours that need to be discouraged in society. However, if digital mediums (i) make it much easier to express outrage, or (ii) change the incentives for expressing outrage, then it could become much more difficult to separate a pro-social signal from the noise. 

There is a growing concern that social media platforms, as they are currently designed, threaten democracy by spreading disinformation, accelerating political polarization, and disrupting the public square (Deb, Donohue & Glaisyer 2017). Dr. Crockett hypothesizes that these threats – if they indeed exist – can be at least partly explained by the tendency of social media to amplify moral outrage. Dr. Crockett and her team are currently investigating this possibility through a combination of laboratory experiments and analyses of social media data.

To learn more visit: 


Barclay, P. (2006). Reputational benefits for altruistic punishment. Evolution and Human Behavior, 27(5), 325-344.

Berger, J., & Milkman, K. L. (2012). What makes online content viral?. Journal of marketing research, 49(2), 192-205.

Brady, W. J., Wills, J. A., Jost, J. T., Tucker, J. A., & Van Bavel, J. J. (2017). Emotion shapes the diffusion of moralized content in social networks. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, 114(28), 7313-7318.
Crockett, M. J. (2017). Moral outrage in the digital age. Nature Human Behaviour, 1(11), 769.

Deb, A., Network, O., Donohue, S., Glaisyer, T., & Fund, D. (2017). Is Social Media a Threat to Democracy?. Omidyar Group. pdf

Jordan, J. J., Hoffman, M., Bloom, P., & Rand, D. G. (2016). Third-party punishment as a costly signal of trustworthiness. Nature, 530(7591), 473.


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