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.
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Given an issue can be framed in either moral or non-moral terms (Van Bavel et al. 2012) a pilot study was conducted to ensure that the presentation of the issues in our studies (sweatshop labor in Studies 1, 4 and 5; environmentally destructive behavior in Studies 2 and 3), was perceived in moral terms. A separate sample of 151 MTurk participants indicated the extent to which their attitudes about sweatshop labor and people’s environmentally destructive behavior were “a reflection of your core moral beliefs and convictions” after reading the articles used in the primary studies. The item was adapted from previous research (Luttrell et al. 2016) and responses were made on a 7-point scale (1 = not at all, 7 = extremely). Supporting our assumption, one-sample t tests revealed that the means (M sweatshop = 5.66, M environment = 5.03) were significantly higher than the scales’ midpoint (4), t(150) = 14.35, p < .001 and t(150) = 8.14, p < .001, respectively.
To ensure sufficient power for the planned mediation analysis, we collected a large sample. In a simple mediation analysis (i.e., with a single mediator), and two small-to-moderate paths, a sample of 148 is necessary to achieve sufficient power (Fritz and McKinnon 2007). Given that the sequential mediation model incorporates two separate simple models, we collected approximately double this sample to ensure more than sufficient power for the planned analysis.
Pilot studies revealed that a small number of participants were unable to properly view the news articles due to technical issues (e.g., slow internet speeds, hardware issues). Based on this, all participants were asked if they had any difficulty viewing the news articles upon completion of the studies and excluded accordingly.
Although participants generally admitted to engaging in behaviors contributing to labor exploitation, self-reported contribution scores were not correlated with our primary variables of interest. This is consistent with the idea that felt guilt, rather than the mere recognition of one’s harm-doing, is the driving force behind subsequence increases in moral outrage and retributive action against perceived corporate harm-doing.
A sample size analysis using G*Power (Faul et al. 2007) revealed that in order to ensure .80 power for our primary analysis, assuming a small to medium effect size we would need a total sample size of 264. Factoring in the exclusion rate from Study 1 we estimated that we would need to collect approximately 307 participants.
A Responsibility × Order ANOVA on Perceived Victimization yielded no significant effects (responsibility: F(1, 263) = .04, p = .85; order: F(1, 263) = .07, p = .80; responsibility × order: F(1, 263) = .17, p = .68).
A sample size analysis using G*Power (Faul et al. 2007) revealed that in order to ensure .80 power for our primary analysis, assuming a small to medium effect size we would need a total sample size of 264. Factoring in the exclusion rate from the previous studies we estimated that we would need to collect approximately 307 participants.
We conducted partial correlational analyses to assess the relationship between moral outrage at third-party harm-doing and perceived personal moral character within conditions. This analysis revealed a significant positive correlation between moral outrage scores and personal moral character ratings following a moral identity threat, r(60) = .25, p = .05. This correlation remained significant when belief in anthropogenic climate change scores were not included as a control, r(63) = .26, p = .04. There was no significant correlation between outrage and moral character in the absence of a moral identity threat, r(56) = .03, p = .85.
A sample size analysis using G*Power (Faul et al. 2007) revealed that in order to ensure .80 power for our primary analysis, assuming a small to medium effect size we would need a total sample size of 124. Factoring in the exclusion rate from the previous studies we estimated that we would need to collect approximately 148 participants.
As in Study 3 we conducted correlational analyses to test for the hypothesized relationship between moral outrage at third-party harm-doing and perceived personal moral character. Consistent with the previous study, this analysis revealed a significant positive correlation between moral outrage scores and personal moral character ratings following a moral identity threat, r(67) = .25, p = .05.
A sample size analysis using G*Power (Faul et al. 2009) revealed that in order to ensure .80 power for our primary analysis, assuming a small to medium effect size we would need a total sample size of 89. Factoring in the exclusion rate from the previous studies we estimated that we would need to collect approximately 100 participants.
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These studies were funded by the authors.
Conflict of interest
Zachary Rothschild declares that he has no conflict of interest. Lucas Keefer declares that he has no conflict of interest.
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 was obtained from all individual participants included in the study.
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Rothschild, Z.K., Keefer, L.A. A cleansing fire: Moral outrage alleviates guilt and buffers threats to one’s moral identity. Motiv Emot 41, 209–229 (2017). https://doi.org/10.1007/s11031-017-9601-2
- Moral outrage
- Moral psychology
- Self and identity
- Defensive processes