Several weeks ago, reading “just one more” article in my news feed, I had a shocking revelation. There I sat, hunched over my computer, with my jaws clenched, my shoulders up past my ears, my heart racing, and my stomach knotted. And it dawned on me—I had become addicted to outrage.
Given the chaos we’ve been surrounded with these past months—the pandemic, the protests, the bitter partisanship around the election—there is plenty to be outraged about. Feeling outraged isn’t necessarily a bad thing. At times it is an appropriate response to behavior that violates accepted standards of behavior.
What I had done, though, was get caught up in a cycle of outrage that had me feeling anger laced with a satisfying sense of self-righteousness and topped off by a burst of adrenaline. The more I sought out outrageous tidbits to feed those emotions, the more I was perpetuating an addictive loop.
I did not appreciate realizing this about myself.
But I did appreciate, just a few days later, being given an opportunity to understand it. On December 13, the subject of NPR’s program “The Hidden Brain” was outrage. Here’s what I learned:
Researchers have found that feeling outrage stimulates pleasure receptors in our brains. No wonder I was enjoying my self-righteous anger. But why would we evolve to take pleasure in outrage? What purpose would it serve?
The value in feeling outrage would be to encourage us to punish those whose behavior violated the accepted standards and rules of our group. Those violations could threaten the well-being or even the survival of individuals or the group.
At the same time, expressing outrage in person has a built-in controller to keep us from overdoing it. Let’s say you and I are part of an Ice Age family group, and I’ve seen you take and hide more than your share of the meat from our mammoth kill. That behavior harms the rest of us by taking food out of our mouths. I am outraged; I need to confront you. But if I get right in your face, screaming and threatening to bash your head in with my stone hammer, you just might hit me first. The ensuing melee wouldn’t do our group any good, either. To protect us from your bad behavior, I need to find a more useful way to turn my outrage into action. (I suspect this is why humans developed polite manners.)
Fast forward to the 21st Century. We don’t have mammoths. We do have social media, where we can be anonymous and our outrage has no external brakes. We can do exactly what I was doing—wallow in “Oh my God!” and “Did they really?” and “What an idiot!” until we send ourselves into a spiral of escalating outrage and response and more outrage. The feeling of outrage still stimulates those pleasure centers in our brains, but it doesn’t compel any useful action. It just floods our bodies with stress.
This does not mean there is no value in outrage that is stirred up in social media. It has great value—to the media itself. The hosting platforms, news outlets, “influencers” and “opinionators” love it. Because outrage gives them views, shares, and attention.
For me, this last piece of information was the key to backing away from my addiction to outrage. I hate being manipulated even more than I enjoy indulging in a nice stressful bout of self-righteous outrage. So I’ve started paying attention to the headlines and images before I ever click on an article. Once you look for them, it’s easy to pick out the inflammatory, sensational words: “shocking” “backlash” “erupts” “rips” “unbelievable.” These are meant to incite outrage and get attention. It’s very satisfying to refuse to take the bait.
I also remember that our pervasive, 24-hour infotainment media is an insatiable monster. It always has to take more in so it can spit more out. There is not nearly enough solid information to keep it fed. So it recycles, rehashes, and stretches out the actual news with tons of opinion, speculation, reactions, and just plain junk. It’s like making meatloaf with eight cups of stale breadcrumbs, a couple of half-spoiled onions, and only three ounces of hamburger.
I don’t have to consume the junk. I can choose just to read one or two articles from a reputable news outlet to get the basics. I don’t need to read or watch the fifth iteration of a commentator’s speculation on somebody’s reaction to somebody else’s response to a possible event hinted at by the assistant to somebody-or-other’s PR person.
When I do react with outrage, I can ask myself two questions. First: “Is this outrage artificially amped up, or is it my own?” Second: “Is there anything I can or should do about it?”
Sometimes the answer is that my outrage is nothing more than a self-indulgent wallow in my own feelings. If so, the energy it creates just feeds toxic stress. It’s time to close my browser, back slowly away from the computer, and do something healthy like take a brisk walk.
Sometimes, though, the answer is “speak up.” Outrage is meant to energize us to take action to confront a threat, right a wrong, or solve a problem. Sometimes, if we fail to act, we are complicit in someone else’s outrageous behavior.
Originally, I intended this piece to end here. I thought I could discuss outrage in a general and explanatory way without mentioning anything that might actually be controversial. I planned to be careful, to not risk offending anyone. I meant to keep strong brakes on my own outrage.
But a few days ago, one especially outrageous act caused me to change my mind. The sitting president of the United States, in a recorded phone call, asked and urged Georgia’s secretary of state to falsify election results. I have read the transcript of this phone call. His own words show President Trump abusing the power of the presidency, violating his own oath of office, and violating the law by urging another elected official to do the same.
And today, as I’m writing this, the members of Congress who should be peacefully and ceremonially certifying the results of the presidential election are being evacuated from their chambers because of violent protests. Protests urged on by a dangerously petulant president.
Is my outrage over this my own? Absolutely. Is there anything I can or should do about it? Absolutely. I have a responsibility to confront the president’s behavior because it threatens the well-being of our shared group—the American people. I can choose to speak up, even if others might take offense. I can choose to use my sense of outrage to take my own action.
Because if I do not, I become one of those “good people” who, by doing nothing, allow evil to triumph. And that is outrageous.