I grew up on a cattle ranch in Wyoming, where I spent more time with animals than other people. I love animals, even the smelly ones with a bad temper that fling snot and stomp the ground. When I moved into an urban area, I had to leave them behind, but I kept fond memories of them close to my heart. I read about a local animal rights group and decided to attend one of their meetings.
Instead of learning how to care for abandoned or abused animals, I spent a miserable hour listening to why we should all be outraged that animals are either slaughtered for meat or used in laboratories for experiments. The speaker’s outrage squeezed out any opportunity to discuss constructive ways to help animals in need.
I never attended another meeting. Instead, I found a horse rescue that needed volunteers to help tend to abandoned horses.
Outrage is everywhere
One of the most popular headlines these days is: “Where is your outrage at—?” Fill in the blanks to suit the topic of the moment. Whether it’s social issues, political affiliation or some injustice that has yet to be discovered, we are told we should be outraged at the lack of understanding in other people.
Outrage is everywhere. College campuses offer “safe spaces” so students don’t have to listen to someone with an opposing point of view. A micro-aggression can trigger a meltdown, and an incorrect word can lead to snits and screaming threats. In the old days, we called these tantrums.
The real problem is that people have become less tolerant of those with opposing opinions. Our difference in beliefs hasn’t changed over the years; it’s how we feel about the people with whom we disagree.
Here are three surprising reasons your addiction to outrage is ruining your life:
1. Outrage and media
We can tell others that we disapprove of how talking heads on cable TV say offensive things, but data from audiences tell another story. We actually find these types of political commentary to be quite compelling. Media outlets have created an outrage industry that continues to expand, and the same data indicates that both liberals and conservatives are guilty of outrage propaganda. Outrage media was coined in 2009, but technology has evolved so fast that there is a rush to attract stories and attention by any means necessary.
One reason we fall prey to outrage is that our brain is hyper-vigilant for negative information. Our brain is wired for survival, which is why negative messages get our attention faster than positive ones. The brain sees positive news as nice, but negative information could indicate a threat to our safety.
Negative emotions like sadness, loneliness, guilt and shame can morph into outrage if left unchecked because it’s important to remember that the core of rage is anger. The media exploits our hardwired reaction to negative information, which has produced a constant race for the next controversy. When outrage hosts spew forth rage, they are rewarded with high ratings.
How to make it work for you: Be selective when you watch or read news. If you are alert and savvy to the way that the media is manipulating your emotions, you can choose whether to react with anger and indignation, dismiss the news clip for what it is, or do your own research on a topic before taking the word of a pundit or armchair philosopher who is incentivized to provoke your outrage. Your most potent response to outrage media is protest to the advertisers who support these programs. Advertising revenue has been integral to the increase in outrage programs, so let those sponsors know you can vote with your pocketbook and boycott them.
2. Outrage and guilt
When we discuss a difference of opinion with another person face to face, it’s harder to respond with rage. We may try to persuade the other person to change their point of view, and vice versa, and we may experience exasperation with contrary opinions. But, there is a good probability that we’ll dismiss them as deluded and harmless.
However, behind the protected screen of our computers, the soft gloves come off as we raise our arms in battle. We are no longer on the B team but on the front line. We become a player in a great moral struggle. When “the other side” is just an avatar on a screen, we assume the worst about the other person and turn them into a stereotype of someone who is ignorant. Maybe we see ourselves as a victim or triumphant defenders of justice. Social media has given everyone the tools to be an amateur critic.
Our hyper-moralized approach to social media and other online content diminishes our capacity to maintain the tension between real and fake outrage. Studies in emotion and motivation show that rage has an emotion-regulating effect. Moral outrage alleviates our guilt because it reassures us that we are not in the wrong. In fact, the level of our personal guilt can predict the level of our outrage.
Fake outrage and virtue signaling allows us to hide in the crowd, feel righteous without doing much of anything at all, and suffer like the martyrs we are not. According to the study cited above, “Feelings of guilt are a direct threat to one’s sense that they are a moral person … research finds that this emotion elicits strategies aimed at alleviating guilt that does not always involve undoing one’s actions.“
How to make it work for you: Keep in mind that much of the moral outrage you read or see online is never intended for meaningful discussion. You can waste your time, talent and treasure on finding new and different ways to be outraged, and you will be amply rewarded with conspiracy theories, lies, intolerance and insults. Instead, do these things:
- Walk away.
- Let it go.
3. Outrage and addiction
Our brain produces dopamine and other chemicals that create a pleasure response. We enjoy these pleasant feelings so we repeat the activities that produce them. We choose which behaviors get reinforced and which triggers the release of more reward chemicals.
This same phenomenon also explains why gambling is a habit that is so difficult to break. Studies show that gambling produces a pattern of brain activity similar to cocaine in an addict.
Rage is another harmful pattern that has a chemical-reinforcement component. We talk about righteous indignation to justify our outrage, but virtue-signaling produces a vicious cycle that any of us can fall into. The more outraged we are at others, the more righteous we feel. That leads further down the rabbit hole where we experience moral superiority over others.
Outrage at other people’s failings allows us to feel vindicated from our own similar weaknesses. When we shout at them, it makes us feel pure. “I am so much smarter and better than my enemies! They are so wrong, and I am so right!” Again, that pleasure response is activated, and we will try to reinforce our way of thinking.
Sanctimonious rage is so intense and pleasurable that we return to it again and again. In short, it becomes addictive.
How to make it work for you:
- Pay attention to how moral battles upset you.
- Control your growing sense of entitlement as your outrage continues.
- Acknowledge that much of your outrage at others stems from the fact that you have experienced similar failings.
- Stop virtue-signaling to the larger audience and channel your outrage. For example, focus on the lives around you where you have agency. Use words and perform actions that can actually change things.
Again, remember that anger is at the core of your outrage. If you can’t find a way to control it, it will consume your life. You’ll find yourself around people who think exactly like you, and this will do nothing but perpetuate the vicious addictive cycle.
Yes, there is injustice, and we should raise a voice against it. But, instead of changing the world, focus on how to change the environment around you. If you don’t, it could ruin your personal and professional relationships, and ultimately, ruin your life.
LaRae Quy was an FBI undercover and counterintelligence agent for 24 years, during which she exposed and recruited foreign spies and developed the mental toughness to survive in environments of risk, uncertainty and deception. Find out if you’re mentally tough with Quy’s FREE, evidence-based Mental Toughness Assessment. Quy’s new book is “Secrets of a Strong Mind (2nd edition): How To Build Inner Strength To Overcome Life’s Obstacles.” Follow her on Twitter, Facebook, Instagram and LinkedIn.
Opinions expressed by SmartBrief contributors are their own.