Study suggests college students protest to assuage 'guilt'

A new study contends that moral outrage towards injustice is actually a way of reducing guilt over one’s own moral failings.

The study, “A cleansing fire: Moral outrage alleviates guilt and buffers threats to one’s moral identity,” was published in Motivation and Emotion by Professors Lucas Keefer of the University of Southern Mississippi and Zach Rothschild of Bowdoin College, who told Campus Reform that such guilt-driven moral outrage is particularly common on college campuses.

The researchers conducted five separate studies designed to assess the relationship between guilt and moral outrage.

In one study, researchers attempted to trigger feelings of guilt in participants by suggesting that they were personally responsible for sweatshop labor, then asking them to rate their agreement with statements such as, “I rarely ask about working conditions when making a purchase,” and “when making a purchase I don’t think about the workers who made the product I am purchasing.”

Participants’ agreement with those statements—which were designed to spike feelings of guilt—were then correlated with their level of moral outrage.

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“Consistent with our expected model, we found that guilt, moral outrage, and support for retributive punishment were each significantly and positively correlated with one another,” the authors concluded, adding that the results of the other four experiments further substantiated those findings by revealing that expressing outrage enabled individuals to assuage personal guilt and restore “perceived personal morality.”

Keefer and Rothschild told Campus Reform that they see moral outrage as a significant factor behind activism on college campuses, explaining that it provides the motivation for them to remain engaged despite competing demands on their time.

“College students regularly see expressions of outrage on social media platforms as well as on their college campuses,” Rothschild said. “One common display of outrage comes in the form of student protests and petitions, whether they are demonstrating against the inhumane treatment of animals, abortion, or sweatshop labor.”

Keefer concurred, adding that guilt-fueled moral outrage is “likely some element” of what keeps students actively engaged in activism, noting that students might otherwise lose “interest or motivation” due to the time- and resource-intensive nature of protest activity.

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Keefer also pointed out that moral outrage can have either positive or negative manifestations, both on college campuses and elsewhere.

“Outrage could be expressed in very positive ways, like the use of free speech to protest or petition,” or it “could push people toward actions like vandalism or violence,” he elaborated, surmising that people should question the value of moral outrage for “meaningful social reform.”

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