Are you ‘virtue signaling’? – David Rand, Jillian Jordan

David Rand, Associate Professor of Management Science and Brain and Cognitive Sciences, MIT Sloan School of Management

From The New York Times 

Expressions of moral outrage are playing a prominent role in contemporary debates about issues like sexual assault, immigration and police brutality. In response, there have been criticisms of expressions of outrage as mere “virtue signaling” — feigned righteousness intended to make the speaker appear superior by condemning others.

Clearly, feigned righteousness exists. We can all think of cases where people simulated or exaggerated feelings of outrage because they had a strategic reason to do so. Politicians on the campaign trail, for example, are frequent offenders.

So it may seem reasonable to ask, whenever someone is expressing indignation, “Is she genuinely outraged or just virtue signaling?” But in many cases this question is misguided, for the answer is often “both.”

You may not realize it, but distinguishing between genuine and strategic expressions of indignation assumes a particular scientific theory: namely, that there are two separable psychological systems that shape expressions of moral outrage. One is a “genuine” system that evaluates a transgression in light of our moral values and determines what level of outrage we actually feel. The other is a “strategic” system that evaluates our social context and determines what level of outrage will look best to others. Authentic expressions of outrage involve only the first system, whereas virtue signaling involves the second system.

This theory may be intuitively compelling, but new research suggests that it is wrong. Psychological studies reveal that a person’s authentically experienced outrage is inherently interwoven with subconscious concerns about her reputation. In other words, even genuine outrage can be strategic.

In a paper forthcoming in The Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, we show that even when people are unobserved — and thus have no incentive to signal their virtue — their sense of moral outrage is influenced by their desire to be seen positively by others.

In several experiments, we presented participants with an act of selfish behavior, in which one person was given an opportunity to split a sum of money with another person but decided to keep all the money for himself. Then we asked the participants to rate their degree of outrage toward the selfish person. This took place in a completely anonymous online environment, so that no one — not even us, the researchers — could link the subjects’ responses to their identities.

But before we asked our subjects to rate their degree of outrage toward the selfish person, we asked about half of them to complete another task: We provided them with a sum of money and gave them the opportunity to share it with an unidentified stranger. (Some shared, some didn’t.) This also took place in a completely anonymous online environment.

Read the full post in the NY Times

David Rand is Associate Professor of Management Science and Brain and Cognitive Sciences at MIT Sloan, and the Director of the Human Cooperation Laboratory and the Applied Cooperation Team.

Jillian Jordan is a postdoctoral fellow at the Kellogg School of Management at Northwestern University. 

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