Have you noticed that it can feel good to get riled up about something? Anger, surprise, disgust, and sympathy that wrap up into one response, instead of repelling us, seems to drive deep engagement. But is outage effective in bringing about change?
In my book, Design Your Mind: Everyday tools to make every day better, I introduce a four-pointed pyramid to describe how we engage with information through awareness, emotion, a sense of empowerment built around values, and the state of the body. These shape mood, or state of mind. Outrage, as righteous anger, is one of these states that captures us because it reinforces the rewarding feeling of being right. It is a mood helped along by the accompanying adrenaline kick that spices things up.
The online community has been especially successful in liberating righteous anger as part of everyday life. It works especially well in getting us engaged and wanting to share stories. And the internet seems to be a locus for such activity. Why?
Perhaps the underlying cause is that most of us don’t want to have to work too hard at decision-making. Frankly we don’t want to work too hard at anything. So, for decisions, we tend to rely on feelings, informed by word-of-mouth, rather than a tedious exploration of information. In other words, our social in-group does a lot of our thinking for us, and we trust them to guide us correctly. This is the benefit of being a social animal.
But we have used social groupings for thinking for thousands of years. What is so special about this time? One view is that the internet environment amplifies polarity like an echo-chamber, and at the same time it removes the usual cost of disagreement. When face-to-face we feel vulnerable, recognise the need to get along, and have to make our case. On the internet we feel supported collectively and do not have to worry about losing a friend or getting punched in the face for stating a view that differs from others.
The cost appears small. The benefit is the chemistry that floods our brain, giving us that feeling of being rewarded, as we assert our brand of ‘fairness’ while sensing group approval. In such an environment shaming carries a pleasure reward too, which is not counterbalanced by physical cost, hence the current push to legislate against certain actions such as ‘revenge pawn’.
But there is another take on the situation. It appears that with more dopamine present in the brain people become extra sensitive to perceived inequality. And we know that checking phones, playing online games, and getting 'likes' or comments on Facebook and other platforms releases dopamine into the brain frequently. With such constant dopamine hits all day, we may actually be sensitising our minds to unfairness.
Observations in the media note a generational divide, with younger people often more focused on equality, sharing and social-good, and less tolerant of politicians, social greed, and self-interest than less-technologically engaged members of society. This trend appears international in scope, showing up most recently in the Australian election. Author, David Gillespie finds evidence for a dopamine oversupply in young brains resulting in the surge of anxiety and depression currently present, which accompanies long-term screen-use. He puts this case to us in his new book, Teen Brain.
But we are still left with our initial question: does outrage actually bring about the kind of change people want? What happens when outrage mobilises the crowd behind a cause or an individual? The Arab Spring seems to have failed. The attempt to limit gun ownership in the USA has gone nowhere. Ongoing yellow vest protests in France look to be irreconcilable. The issue of leaving the UK has Brexit in the streets. And election outcomes are being fought over. Certainly, gay rights have been achieved in many countries, other human rights advancements have been tested by referendum, and NZ seems to have achieved gun control. However, these successes took conventional political routes, assisted by public support, which may provide a lesson in process.
Such a process is evident from the global scale outrage shown against new death penalties brought in by Brunei's leader. Some are now on hold. The shift occurred not because of the outrage itself, but because individuals and corporations implemented collective tactics. Hotels around the world associated with the country received boycotts. Support for tourism was pulled. Income, credibility and reputation were put under pressure, and these worked as points of leverage.
So, is outrage effective in bringing about change? Certainly, it accompanies a challenge to moral values, however, highly emotional and polarised responses tend to become a tail-chasing exercise. We see a generational change arriving that wants to put things right, but the danger is that relying on emotion may derail success. As a tool for change, outrage seems effective only when accompanied by coolly calculated strategy and tactics.
Till next time – B.W. Cribb