Motivation and Emotion

, Volume 41, Issue 2, pp 209–229 | Cite as

A cleansing fire: Moral outrage alleviates guilt and buffers threats to one’s moral identity

  • Zachary K. RothschildEmail author
  • Lucas A. Keefer
Original Paper


Why do people express moral outrage? While this sentiment often stems from a perceived violation of some moral principle, we test the counter-intuitive possibility that moral outrage at third-party transgressions is sometimes a means of reducing guilt over one’s own moral failings and restoring a moral identity. We tested this guilt-driven account of outrage in five studies examining outrage at corporate labor exploitation and environmental destruction. Study 1 showed that personal guilt uniquely predicted moral outrage at corporate harm-doing and support for retributive punishment. Ingroup (vs. outgroup) wrongdoing elicited outrage at corporations through increased guilt, while the opportunity to express outrage reduced guilt (Study 2) and restored perceived personal morality (Study 3). Study 4 tested whether effects were due merely to downward social comparison and Study 5 showed that guilt-driven outrage was attenuated by an affirmation of moral identity in an unrelated context.


Moral outrage Guilt Moral psychology Self and identity Defensive processes 



These studies were funded by the authors.

Compliance with ethical standards

Conflict of interest

Zachary Rothschild declares that he has no conflict of interest. Lucas Keefer declares that he has no conflict of interest.

Ethical approval

All procedures performed in studies involving human participants were in accordance with the ethical standards of the institutional and/or national research committee and with the 1964 Helsinki declaration and its later amendments or comparable ethical standards.

Informed consent

Informed consent was obtained from all individual participants included in the study.


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Copyright information

© Springer Science+Business Media New York 2017

Authors and Affiliations

  1. 1.Department of PsychologyBowdoin CollegeBrunswickUSA
  2. 2.University of Southern MississippiHattiesburgUSA

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