A Q&A with Molly Crockett, PhD, assistant professor of psychology at Yale University.

Thrive Global: You’re a neuroscientist by training. How did you start studying moral outrage on digital platforms?

Molly Crockett: I work on the neuroscience of learning and decision-making. Over the past year I started to notice how sensitive I was becoming to social feedback online. I found myself spending more and more time on social media, and feeling more and more outraged, and neither of these behaviors felt very intentional. Eventually I decided to use my scientific training to understand why, and ended up developing a theory of moral outrage in the digital age.

TG: How are social media platforms changing the way we express our outrage, and are these changes for better or worse?

MC: This is a very new area of research, and there is still a lot we don’t know about how these new technologies might shape our ancient social emotions. But there are a few initial predictions. First, social media platforms make it a lot easier to express outrage—the tools for doing so are literally at our fingertips 24/7. This technology also lowers some of the costs of expressing outrage—it’s more dangerous to confront someone in real life than to tweet criticism about them. This means that the threshold for expressing outrage might be lower online than offline. As to whether these changes are for better or for worse for society, that’s a conversation we all need to be having right now. In particular, we should be thinking about what kinds of social transgressions are already receiving sufficient levels of social disapproval, versus those that might benefit from more attention and punishment.

TG: In your paper published in Nature Human Behaviour, you wrote, “And just as a habitual snacker eats without feeling hungry, a habitual online shamer might express outrage without actually feeling outraged.” Can you explain this further?

MC: The definition of a habit is a behavior expressed without regard to its consequences. One speculation—and it’s important to emphasize that we need more research on this question—is that social media might disconnect our expressions of outrage from our actual emotional experiences. We could be “going through the motions” of expressing outrage online without actually feeling the emotion very deeply ourselves. This could be a problem if it creates collective illusions of public outrage, where everyone is expressing it but few are actually feeling it. On the other hand, it’s also possible that constant exposure to outrage online sensitizes us to experiencing more outrage than we used to. Psychologists are working hard to answer these and other questions.

TG: You also wrote that “Shaming a stranger on a deserted street is far riskier than joining a Twitter mob of thousands.” How does this feeling of safety online affect the way people respond to bad behavior both online and off?

MC: Deciding whether to punish someone for bad behavior involves a kind of cost-benefit calculation. Brain imaging studies show that decisions to punish others engage the same basic reward circuitry as other kinds of ordinary decisions, like what to eat for breakfast. So when deciding to punish, we trade off the expected benefits—the feeling of satisfaction, the expectation that bad behavior will change—against the expected costs, like the effort involved and whether we could be retaliated against. A feeling of safety online could work to counteract some of the expected costs of outrage, although it’s important to also note that online discourse carries its own costs. Online harassment and abuse are widespread, and are more of a risk for women and minorities.

TG: How does social media affect our empathy and altruism? Does it increase it, because it makes people’s suffering more visible, or is the empathy we’re expressing online not all that genuine?

MC: This is an important question that is not well understood, though many scientists are actively working on this issue. Juliana Schroeder at Berkeley has shown how hearing others’ voices helps counteract dehumanization during political disagreement, identifying opportunities for building empathy in online discourse. Sander van der Linden at Cambridge has looked at viral online altruism and how it can inspire collective action. Rene Weber at UCSB has investigated how the internet can increase the potential for aggressive behavior. One thing to keep in mind with online expressions of empathy and altruism is their public nature: people may be motivated, either consciously or unconsciously, to express these moral sentiments for reputational gain. That’s not to say that all moral expressions online are disingenuous, but it is far easier to express solidarity with a social cause by changing your Facebook profile photo than it is to effect change in the real world. And the former might be more socially visible than the latter.

TG: How does the #MeToo movement fit into the world of viral outrage?

MC: Although a lot of online outrage seems potentially counterproductive to me, #MeToo might be a rare case where social media could have a positive effect. There are several features of this issue that make it somewhat different from much of the outrage we’ve been seeing online recently. First, it’s an issue that is not isolated to any one social group, in contrast with many partisan issues. This means that #MeToo is likely to be heard by a diverse audience, which increases its potential for real social change. Second, the costs of reporting sexual assault and harassment are often very high, which is one reason why a majority of such incidents are never reported to the police. By lowering some of those costs, social media may help empower victims, which could help bring repeat offenders to justice and prevent future harms. Finally, I would frame #MeToo more as an expression of solidarity than an expression of outrage. Research shows peer support and social connection are an important part of recovery from trauma, and this may be facilitated by social media.

TG: What’s a more effective way of channeling discontent on the internet than short-lived hashtags?

MC: Online social networks can help us quickly and easily learn which of our friends care about the same issues we do. We can then take these conversations offline and convert shared outrage into meaningful social action. Wouldn’t it be great if online platforms themselves had built-in tools to help us do just that?