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Explanations > Emotions > Outrage

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Outrage is an extreme form of anger used when a person believes that another has broken important rules. The rules are usually social values, for example that one should not steal or must not harm vulnerable people. As a result, outrage often is righteous in tone and seeks reparation or punishment.


A parent uses outrage to teach a child the limits of how the child may act within social values.

A charity worker is outraged by people who act in ways opposed to the charity's ideals.

A terrorist organization radicalizes recruits by portraying their targets as cold killers of the innocent members of their ethnic or religious group.


Anger plays to our need for a sense of control. When we are angry, we feel powerful and able to take on a dangerous foe. This gave evolutionary benefit yet anger is socially forbidden, denying us the easy good feelings it brings. Outrage is effectively legitimised anger, giving us not only reason but a moral duty to express our extreme anger at the culprit in question.

Whereas anger tends to be limited in time and focused on a person, outrage may last for much longer and be communicated widely. The outraged person tends to seek affirmation that their outrage is just and wants sympathy and support for enacting punishment. In this way, outrage is often a social phenomenon.

Outrage is often felt by defenders who seek to protect those they perceive as vulnerable. They often play a role of crusader and activist, taking umbrage on behalf of both individuals and whole communities. This is a relatively safe personal position in which they feel they are invested with the power of the just, and can hence be forthright and perhaps even rude, while hiding behind their cause.

Outrage is used as a motivational tool in war. The enemy is painted as a cold, callous and evil. Their actions that give evidence for this are graphically illustrated and exaggerated. A zealous killing by one soldier is taken as indicative of a policy of no mercy, even for women, children and the elderly. Heavy interrogation is called torture. Outrage leads to hate and little motivates soldiers more to extreme force than hatred of the enemy. The paradox is that acts of hatred lead to outrage by the other side, perpetuating the conflict in a spiral of savagery.

Outrage is used by terrorist organizations. For them, they are at war and this is a useful means of radicalizing new fighters. Paradoxically, this process is helped by their enemy's media who seek to expose and publicize outrageous acts by the armed forces. While such acts may be morally wrong, it has the unfortunate consequence of adding fuel to the terrorists' fire. It is not surprising that in times of war a free press may be strictly gagged. The dilemma is that in the peacetime where terrorists operate, the media is motivated first by sales and little stimulates and hence sells more than outrage.

The cycle of revenge that typifies feuds is often fueled by outrage. Revenge tends to be disproportionate, mirroring the extreme emotion of outrage. We take revenge not to dissuade the other side but to satisfy our anger. The greater the anger, the more extreme the punishment we seek to implement. And the more extreme the punishment, the more the other side feels victimized and outraged.

Punishment of crimes can be affected by outrage as law-creating governments are sensitive to voter emotion about certain acts. Likewise judges and juries may be swayed by how they feel as much as by the evidence presented. And how they feel may be affected by lawyers who seek to stir up outrage and the consequent desire for harsh sentencing. An effect of this can be that the criminal, rather than repenting and reforming, becomes outraged at the perceived disproportion in the punishment and becomes hardened in their ways. Justice is a delicate path where outrage can trump fairness, with often undesirable consequences.

Outrage is also used by liars. When accused of lying, they feel their backs are against the wall. They hence push back hard by feigning outrage that they could ever be accused of such a terrible thing as lying. Outrage turns the tables, accusing the accuser and taking attention away from the liar. It also levels the playing field as each now is accused of wrong-doing. In effect it is a values argument, trading the rule that we should trust one another against the rule that we should be honest.

When faced with outrage, many accusers will back off, either because they fear the anger or because the anger causes them to rethink their accusation, into which sufficient doubt creeps for them to drop the accusation. Some liars will then press their advantage, demanding an apology or other reparation. This often has the intended effect of dissuading the accuser from suggesting lies in the future.

Outrage, then, is both a natural response and a weapon. We use it to defend both ourselves and vulnerable others. It is sometimes also something we use coldly and callously to legitimise anger and recruit others to our cause. It hence needs to be treated with caution and we should not get swept up with it as our instincts may tell us. In particular when we consider the longer-term impact of it, we may conclude it is better to avoid this dangerous emotion.

So what?

When people act outraged by what you have done, pause and think before you get pushed into apology or fight-back. Might they be trying to manipulate you?

You may also want to use outrage yourself to send deliberate signals to others. Beware in this of sending conflicting signals. When you are outraged, you are saying that you consider particular values very important. If you then broke those values, you may well be seen as two-faced and shallow.

See also

Anger, Values, Disgust, Terrorism, radicalization and the polarizing politics of outrage


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