How viral outrage can backfire

AP Photo/Wilfredo Lee

Pig pile

In a series of experiments, psychologists at Stanford showed people social media posts that could easily be seen as offensive — for instance, as racist, sexist, unpatriotic, or xenophobic. If the offensive post was shown getting 10 outraged replies, people felt more sympathy toward the author than when it generated only two outraged replies. This was true even when the offender was described as a white supremacist! Yet while third-party observers of these social media pile-ons were relatively sympathetic to the author of the original offensive post, that effect did not hold when people were asked to write their own outraged reply. In other words, when people take part in viral outrage, they fail to see that it can backfire.


Sawaoka, T. & Monin, B., “The Paradox of Viral Outrage,” Psychological Science (forthcoming).

Insecure and inappropriate

When asked to imagine themselves interviewing an opposite-gender job applicant, men — but not women — with an elevated fear of criticism reported being more likely to engage in behavior that constitutes sexual harassment. In an experiment, researchers sought to put subjects in a high-power state of mind. Men — but not women — with an elevated fear of criticism sent more sex-related articles to a female recipient.

Halper, L. & Rios, K., “Feeling Powerful but Incompetent: Fear of Negative Evaluation Predicts Men’s Sexual Harassment of Subordinates,” Sex Roles (forthcoming).

More fines, more unsolved crimes

A new study finds that municipalities that get more of their revenue from fines solve a lower fraction of their crimes, even controlling for the crime rate, police department size, and the socio-economic characteristics of the community. This is particularly true for violent crime in small towns. The findings are consistent with the notion that the pressure to collect revenue distracts police departments from investigations.

Goldstein, R. et al., “Exploitative Revenues, Law Enforcement, and the Quality of Government Service,” Urban Affairs Review (forthcoming).


Owning NIMBY

Analyzing voter and property data from Ohio and North Carolina, political scientists at Stanford found that people who buy property are subsequently more likely to vote, especially when zoning issues are on the ballot. While the effect is present among those who buy the least expensive properties, it doubles among those who buy the most expensive properties.

Hall, A. & Yoder, J., “Does Homeownership Influence Political Behavior? Evidence from Administrative Data,” Stanford University (August 2018).

Valuing weight loss

Many studies in psychology only test the immediate effects of a psychological manipulation, but a new study bothered to do the long-term follow-up. In the original studies, female college students had been randomly assigned to write about the thing they valued most — such as music, athletic ability, or relationships with friends and family. Heavier students in this group managed to maintain their body-mass index, not just in the original two-month follow-up, but over the next couple years. Meanwhile, heavier students in a control group — who had been assigned to a different task — experienced a significant increase in body-mass index over time.

Logel, C. et al., “Affirmation Prevents Long-Term Weight Gain,” Journal of Experimental Social Psychology (forthcoming).

Kevin Lewis is an Ideas columnist. He can be reached at kevin.lewis.ideas@gmail.com.