There are two kinds of reactions dominant in today's public space (e.g., Internet):

  • shallow, sycophantic, thoughtless pat (/like/upvote) - aimed primarily to increase the outreach (and invite adequate reciprocity)
  • fiery, sarcastic outrage - intended to depict someone's inferiority while letting one vent out ...

Both are pretty interesting (from a standpoint of cognitive psychology), but it's the second one I'd like to focus on today.

Let's start with a disclaimer: outrage is not just (any type of) criticism. And what's wrong about it isn't just about intense (negative) emotions - there are situations when it's pretty much impossible not to get pissed off. That is not wrong per se.

Outrage is very emotional (and infectious!) criticism, based not on traceable data but exaggeration, over-generalization, sarcasm, and faulty reasoning. Instead of fact-checking or independent verification, there are only hyperbolic statements and notorious alarmism.

Well, maybe outrage is not such a bad thing? After all, open criticism is some form of feedback - far better than dead silence and indifference. Unfortunately, outrage is never about objective facts (so it doesn't bring actual input for any improvement), and due to its viral nature, it useless in civilized debate.

Why do we outrage then? Oh, there are many reasons - seeking attention, (hidden) personal benefit, but the most important is ... negative synergy/accumulation of several cognitive biases.

Hmmm, how to fight outrage then? Well, there are two key methods:

  • the safe and defensive one - to ignore/filter it out, by giving it zero publicity and reverb - strangle it by not reacting at all
  • the risky and offensive one - to ridicule it, but it's tricky because you have to do it in a way that won't spur further discussion, otherwise you'll only pour petrol on fire ...

Regardless of which method you pick, it's essential to build awareness necessary to properly disarm outrages (in others' statements, opinions ... and your instinctive reactions!) by dissecting them into elemental cognitive biases.

What are the "usual suspects" (the most common ingredients of an outrage)? Here are my lists:

  1. Hindsight bias - - treating events (in the past) as far more predictable than they actually were - "I knew that all along. I was saying that before it happened. Exactly as I predicted."
  2. Outcome bias - - (less popular twin of hindsight bias) the evaluation of the quality of decision changes when the outcome is already known; "How could they not know it will happen? It was so obvious - everyone should be able to predict that."
  3. Historian's fallacy - - the assumption that decision-makers from the past had the same information (/context) at their disposal as one has now (when not only the decision is already made, but we know the outcome as well)
  1. Actor-observer asymmetry - - your judgment on a given situation depends on if you're involved or not; if you are, you'd rather blame situational factors (even bad luck); if you're not, you go for inner (e.g., personality) traits/flaws of whoever was acting
  2. Illusion of asymmetric insight - - we, humans, tend to claim to know more about others than they know about themselves - we believe our ad-hoc analysis (w/o complete data/context) is more accurate and spot-on than all the insights they may have built during their lifetime
  3. Confirmation bias - - a tendency to look (and favor) for arguments that support your initial/prior opinion; this one is doubly dangerous in conjunction with a framing effect - - when the opinion is formulated in a clearly negative/positive way, people tend to stick to these connotations w/o verifying their objective basis ("glass half-full" vs "glass half-empty")
  1. Apophenia - - looking for connections (e.g., causation) where there's none - a popular foundation for various conspiration theories
  2. Horn effect - - once someone was associated with a negative fact/opinion (that stuck), it's far easier to associate them with similar occurrences in the future; they are the ones to be blamed first
  3. Authority bias - - exaggerating importance, accuracy, or meaning of someone's statement/opinion, just because this person is known or popular

Outrage doesn't help anyone or solve any problems, quite the contrary. We ALL need more reason (rationality!) in everyday communication in public space. But it will work only if we all make our contribution instead of mindlessly reinforcing the avalanche of flooding shit (by social patting, pointless fiery debates, and escalating conflicts).

"No single raindrop believes it is to blame for the flood." Naomi Stanford

P.S. Isn't this post an outrage against outrage? Hey, let's not get that recursive, mkay? ;)

P.S.S. Wait, but isn't all that outrage triggered by people who are simply ... assholes? Folks, who cause shitstorms for kicks and giggles? Ones who like to antagonize and defame? Well, it would be simplest to assume such a thing, but the world is never that simple. People are far less malicious than we assume them to be, and rarely have truly vile intentions - but we all have our weak moments, prejudices, and mental shortcuts. That's why I prefer to start with identifying and disarming biases in behaviors, rather than going full ballistic against anyone's personality/traits.