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.

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