Moral outrage overload? How social media may be changing our brains

Yale psychologist Molly Crockett shares insights from her work during SNF Agora Institute Democracy Dialogues event

In January, a video clip circulated on social media that showed a group of teens wearing red Make America Great Again caps who appeared to be taunting a Native American protester during a rally near the Lincoln Memorial in Washington, D.C. The fallout from the viral video was swift: hundreds of thousands of social media users—private and public figures alike—commented and shared posts about the teens and their actions, some condemning them as racist, others defending them.

In the wake of the video, later shown to depict a situation more complicated than originally thought, the world saw an angry Internet mob form. Psychologist Molly Crockett saw a trend.

“It seems that we can hardly go five minutes without a new episode of outrage erupting in the public sphere,” Crockett said. “If you spend any time on social media, you might have a sense that we are locked in a state of perpetual outrage.”

Crockett, an assistant professor of psychology at Yale University, spoke Monday in Mason Hall on Johns Hopkins University’s Homewood campus as part of Democracy Dialogues, a speaker series hosted by the Stavros Niarchos Foundation Agora Institute at Johns Hopkins. During her talk, she shared insights from her lab’s studies into the way moral outrage affects the human brain, with an emphasis on how digital technologies, and specifically social media, tap into the brain’s reward circuitry.

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