Lately, it has started to feel as if outrage is everywhere. On both sides of the political aisle, people have taken to social media—and to the streets—to express their fury over perceived injustices. The religious right demands a boycott against a popular coffee chain for removing religious iconography from their holiday cups; meanwhile, the left rallies marches in protest against police brutality against young Black men. In the midst of all this anger, both liberal and conservative pundits have started raising the question: has outrage drowned out civil dialogue in America?

The moment you read the title of this article, you likely had an immediate, gut-level reaction. Perhaps you thought of course, outrage helps get things done! Or maybe you thought that’s ridiculous, outrage just drives people further apart. I would venture to guess, though, that most people have an intuition that outrage is ultimately a bad thing—that it gets in the way of constructive dialogue, further dividing our increasingly-partisan nation. 

A similar discussion has been going on in psychology, in two separate subfields: moral psychology (the scientific study of how we judge what’s right and wrong) and intergroup psychology (the study of how different groups—e.g., genders, races/ethnicities, religions—interact). As those of you who voted for option number two—“outrage is bad”—might have predicted, some research from moral psychology suggests outrage drives disproportionately aggressive behavior against wrongdoers. But on the flip side, and consistent with “outrage is good” option number one, work in intergroup psychology demonstrates outrage can serve as a glue binding people together in activism against injustice—increased anger predicts support for non-violent solutions to intractable conflicts like the one between Israel and Palestine.

So if the experimental results on outrage are mixed, what’s the truth about outrage?

This is the question that inspired me—and my colleagues Daryl Cameron and Mina Cikara—to write a paper (now out in Trends in Cognitive Sciences) aimed at untangling the mixed research on outrage. In the paper, we suggest that maybe the problem is how we’ve been thinking about outrage to begin with. So much of the dialogue about moral outrage seems to be about whether outrage as an emotion is fundamentally “good” or “bad.” Pundits and politicians accuse those on the other side of the political aisle of “faux outrage”—manufactured anger over perceived injustices. Even in psychology, researchers have suggested moral outrage is just a thin façade disguising more egotistical motives (e.g., to “virtue signal”). Even the term we use to describe outrage—calling it moral outrage, specifically—might bias us toward viewing outrage itself as a moral act.

Perhaps “is outrage good or bad?” is not the question we should be asking. After all, emotions aren’t moral or immoral in and of themselves. The only thing that can be good or bad is what you do with that emotion. What if we approached outrage functionally instead, and asked: when can the expression of outrage be viewed as positive or negative? And when is outrage most effectively leveraged toward social change…or social destruction?

Our tendency to view outrage-the-emotion as a behavior that can be “right” or “wrong” has some pretty bad downsides. If outrage is something that can be moralized, that means we can get mad at people for experiencing it. And instead of being upset about a moral transgression, the condemnation of that transgression starts to be seen as the “real” immorality. Take for example the entrenched tendency for majority group members to respond with defensiveness and anger when they’re accused of prejudice. The accuser’s outrage starts to be seen as somehow worse than the prejudice that inspired it. Discounting the accuser’s anger protects the accused from accountability—after all, “faux” outrage hardly deserves a respectful response—while redirecting blame toward the victim instead of the perpetrator.

And unfortunately, this moralization of outrage tends to be more frequently wielded against marginalized people, making it even more dangerous. To start with, certain groups are actually perceived as angrier in general than other groups. Take for example the stereotype of the “angry Black woman.” Black women are perceived as expressing inappropriate anger more frequently than people from other groups, potentially contributing to mental health treatment disparities. Black men aren’t exempt—according to political scientists, stereotypes about Black men and uncontrollable anger shape the way Black politicians have to present themselves in the public eye, because even mild anger expressed by a Black man will be perceived as extreme.

This doesn’t just apply to Black people, though. Research suggests that marginalized people in general are held to higher moral standards than majority group members. Specifically, this work found that marginalized people were expected to be more tolerant of immigrants—and if they weren’t, they were judged as more immoral than majority group members who were equally intolerant. In other words: moral outrage about immigration is judged more harshly when it’s being expressed by minority group members.

Does that mean that marginalized group members should avoid expressing anger, so their anger isn’t overdramatized and used as a weapon against them? Perhaps. But some scholars argue that trying to decrease anger for the sake of social harmony only ultimately serves to reinforce an inequitable status quo. Meanwhile, marginalized people’s anger can serve as a catalyst joining group members together to fight against injustice and oppression—and suppressing that anger can suppress moral agency and resistance against injustice.  

As for our second question—when does outrage translate into activism vs. aggression—that remains to be seen. Although we’ve established outrage has the potential to produce both destructive and constructive outcomes, researchers still need to do more work to understand what conditions encourage people to express their outrage as collective action (or as collective violence). We do know that anger, specifically, is a key factor in reducing discrimination—research has demonstrated that anger about discrimination specifically drives reductions in bias against minorities. To the degree that reduced discrimination produces more positive intergroup social behavior, this might be more evidence in favor of how anger can produce positive outcomes.

One thing is clear: I can’t tell you if outrage is “good” or “bad.” Outrage is an emotion, not a behavior itself—emotions can’t be moralized. Like all emotions, outrage can be used as a weapon…or a tool.