Study: Moral Outrage ‘Alleviates Guilt’ over People’s Own Moral Failings

Drew Angerer/Getty Images
Drew Angerer/Getty Images

A recent psychological study concluded that moral outrage is sometimes a symptom of personal guilt rather than genuine empathy for the situation of others.

The study, which was conducted by Bowdoin psychology Professor Zachary Rothschild and University of Southern Mississippi psychology Professor Lucas A. Keefer, concludes that the research on guilt suggests that moral outrage over hot-button issues is sometimes self-serving.

According to the study:

Feelings of guilt are a direct threat to one’s sense that they are a moral person and, accordingly, research on guilt finds that this emotion elicits strategies aimed at alleviating guilt that do not always involve undoing one’s actions. Furthermore, research shows that individuals respond to reminders of their group’s moral culpability with feelings of outrage at third-party harm-doing. These findings suggest that feelings of moral outrage, long thought to be grounded solely in concerns with maintaining justice, may sometimes reflect efforts to maintain a moral identity.

Rothschild and Keefer conducted an experiment in which they assessed the relationship of various emotions. The first portion of their research concluded that the level of a subject’s personal guilt uniquely predicted that individual’s level of moral outrage in response to a controversial stimulus. “Study 1 showed that personal guilt uniquely predicted moral outrage at corporate harm-doing and support for retributive punishment,” the research concludes.

Based on their findings, the study’s authors argue that “outrage driven by moral identity concerns serves to compensate for the threat of personal or collective immorality.”

According to the research’s abstract, one of the several studies conducted by Rothschild and Keefer concluded that outrage is often driven by a desire to affirm a certain moral identity in an unrelated societal context: “Study 5 showed that guilt-driven outrage was attenuated by an affirmation of moral identity in an unrelated context.”

Tom Ciccotta is a libertarian who writes about education and social justice for Breitbart News. You can follow him on Twitter @tciccotta or email him at


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