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How Outrage Is Hijacking Our Culture And Our Minds


Comments on social media and cable news often give reasons to be angry. Sometimes anger seems to be the whole point. Anger draws Internet clicks, which is to say that many people now have a motive or even a business model for getting you mad. New research asks how all this outrage is affecting our minds. Shankar Vedantam is host of the NPR podcast Hidden Brain, which explores the unconscious patterns that drive human behavior.


SHANKAR VEDANTAM: There's a reason there is so much outrage out there. It's a very effective way to get your attention. At New York University, psychologist Jay Van Bavel and his team have analyzed more than half a million tweets, specifically those that used moral and emotional language.

JAY VAN BAVEL: Here's an example tweet from a conservative. (Reading) Gay marriage is a diabolical, evil lie aimed at destroying our nation.

And the moral, emotional words here are evil and destroying. And they're both negative, highly potent words. From a liberal, we have a tweet - (reading) new Mormon policy bans children of same-sex parents. This church wants to punish children - a question mark. Are you kidding me? Shame.

VEDANTAM: Van Bavel found lots of words generate outrage. Profanities are on the list; so are hate, war and greed.

BAVEL: For every moral, emotional word that people use in a tweet, we found that it increased the rate of retweeting from other people who saw it by 15 to 20%.

VEDANTAM: You don't need to use the specific words on Van Bavel's list to generate outrage. You can do it in endless other ways, everything from I can't believe the president said that to why do you hate freedom so much?


VEDANTAM: A story from earlier this year perfectly encapsulates how outrage captures our minds. In January, a short video taken at the National Mall in Washington went viral. It showed an older Native American man surrounded by teenage boys, nearly all of whom were white. Many wore hats that said Make America Great Again.

JULIE IRWIN ZIMMERMAN: These kids were making fun of this guy because he was Native American, because he had a drum and was chanting something unfamiliar to them.

VEDANTAM: This is Julie Zimmerman, a writer based in Cincinnati, recalling her first reaction to the video.

ZIMMERMAN: It was pretty cringeworthy.

VEDANTAM: By that night, the story was everywhere.

ZIMMERMAN: I talked to a friend of mine, who lives in New York, a former roommate of mine, and she said her yoga teacher called and said, let's drive to that school in protest. Like, that's the sort of level of reaction people were having to this. Like, this yoga teacher in New York wanted to hop in the car and drive 10 hours to protest in front of the school.

VEDANTAM: But in the hours that followed, Zimmerman realized that she and many others had gotten the story wrong. A longer video showed that it was the Native American man who had walked up to the teenagers. He was with a large group, not alone. Another group of protesters had been harassing the students.


UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #1: A bunch of babies made out of incest.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #2: Trailer park babies.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #1: Right, trailer park babies.

VEDANTAM: The scene was much more complicated and chaotic than the original video had suggested. Zimmerman didn't think the teenagers were blameless. She spotted some of them making tomahawk chops. But she understood that her initial reaction had been hasty. That's when she was hit with a dilemma.

ZIMMERMAN: I was afraid to tell a few people, initially, that I had changed my mind, which is crazy. Like, why can't you just say, you know, I think I was wrong about this? But I knew some people would be upset because it's as though you're giving your enemy ammunition, and you can't ever admit that maybe the other side has a point.

VEDANTAM: When Zimmerman wrote an essay for The Atlantic admitting she had been wrong, right-wing commentators seized on it.

ZIMMERMAN: My essay was weaponized against liberals, against progressives. And I - you know, it made me uncomfortable to see that. Like, oh, gosh, did I make a mistake here? My brother-in-law called my husband to say Rush Limbaugh just mentioned your wife's name on the air. And I thought, oh, gosh, what have I done?


RUSH LIMBAUGH: One of the drive-by media outlets that really roasted these kids has published a piece - "I Failed The Covington Catholic Test: Next Time There's A Viral Story, I'll Wait For More Facts To Emerge" - Julie Irwin Zimmerman. She was one of the early pilers on and she is begging forgiveness. She failed the test. I know the temptation, but why isn't there even a moment's pause when anything from social media becomes source material in drive-by media?

VEDANTAM: If liberals like Zimmerman had initially jumped to conclusions about how the video showed that conservatives were racist, Limbaugh and other conservatives used Zimmerman's essay to tar all liberals. The first blast of misstatements and errors triggered the next blast with its own misstatements and errors. Psychologist Molly Crockett at Yale says these cycles of outrage feed on one another and can produce fatigue and disengagement among audiences. If the volume on everything is turned to 11, how do you separate signal from noise?

MOLLY CROCKETT: It's just constant. There's a constant drip feed of outrage online, and it makes it hard to know where to focus your efforts.

VEDANTAM: The massive amount of outrage on social, broadcast and print media also come with another downside. Psychologist William Brady says it's pushing Americans deeper and deeper into their own echo chambers.

WILLIAM BRADY: The type of people giving you the shares and the likes, it tends to be people who share your political views.

VEDANTAM: That's because even as outrage is effective at capturing attention, its audience is mostly people who share the same beliefs. The people who disagree are listening to rants in their own echo chambers. Brady and Van Bavel find that messages presented with less outrage are more likely to spark conversations with opponents. Those are the people, after all, whose views we want to change. Shankar Vedantam, NPR News.

(SOUNDBITE OF CAVES OF STEEL'S "TRANSVERSE") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Shankar Vedantam is the host and creator of Hidden Brain. The Hidden Brain podcast receives more than three million downloads per week. The Hidden Brain radio show is distributed by NPR and featured on nearly 400 public radio stations around the United States.