Outrage, research shows, has a delicate dynamic, triggered by the emotional environment. Outrage is contagious. Some studies show that jurors who witness one juror’s expression of outrage at this crime by this person or institution, undergo a “severity shift,” resulting in a more severe verdict. Moderation, and leniency, are also contagious, whereby outrage, and severity, are diffused by one juror’s wise accepting shrug at human foibles.
Outrage’s contagion is often a force for good. What was once accepted as the way of the world can be exposed as an evil by others’ outrage. Sexual harassment, for example, when condemned by others, emerges from its safe hiding spaces to wither in the spotlight. On the other hand, the more xenophobes declare themselves, the more readily others join them.
Understanding the volatility and unpredictability of outrage is crucial to understanding political and social momentum, but there are other issues surrounding outrage that draw my interest. In research for my recent book Passing Judgment I discovered that outrage serves a range of purposes. Our understanding of this culture-shaping emotion will fall short if we neglect its strange and sometimes unseemly pleasures.