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Economy of Outrage

There is a new and insidious marketplace that has developed over the last few years that is worth closer scrutiny: Outrage. 

I became aware of the idea from a host of one of my favorite podcasts who coined the phrase “Merchants of Outrage” to describe the online activities of some individuals. It only seemed natural to me that if, indeed, there are merchants of outrage who peddle in soundbites and information designed to enrage people - there must also be an economy of outrage in which these merchants operate. 

It doesn’t take much effort to confirm this theory. Just check Facebook - the largest marketplace of outrage on the planet. It’s all right there in the form of clickbait and misleading article subjects. It’s not quite fake news, but it isn’t exactly honest. It’s the article claiming that a law under consideration will kill innocent women and children when, in fact, the law under consideration only changes the source of funding for some health benefits. Or the one that claims that a politician secretly wants to come into your home to take your guns when, in reality, that politician really just wants to keep guns out of the hands of crazy people. Both the Left and the Right have learned to employ this tactic for a very simple reason.

It works.

Stripped down to it’s most basic components, outrage consists of two things; surprise and anger. Experienced individually these emotions are somewhat benign.  

Tania Luna and LeeAnn Renninger, authors of Surprise: Embrace the Unpredictable and Engineer the Unexpected, demonstrate how surprise is an important motivator for learning. An unexpected reward, positive or negative, encourages our brains to gather more data in order that we might reproduce the positive or avoid the negative reward in the future. That curiosity can lead to important higher level thinking and increased understanding…unless something hijacks your thinking.

Which is what anger does. The brain’s response to anger is to have the amygdala coordinate the release of neurotransmitters called catecholamines as well as epinephrine and norepinephrine. These give a person a boost of energy, increase blood pressure and allows the body begins to muster resources for action. Anger is often called a lower brain function as it does not engage the prefrontal cortex - which is area of the brain responsible for reasoned thinking and complex thought. Anger causes the brain to act first and think later.  

It’s the commingling of these two that makes the outrage economy so effective. The surprise element of an outrageous headline or story compels us toward further investigation and the anger element of the outrageous produces in us the motivation to act without thinking critically. The result is the gold standard currency of the outrage economy.

Clicks. 

Merchants of outrage are compensated based on their ability to attract you to their media. The more people they draw to their content the more ad revenue they are able to produce. But getting the first click is only the start. Stories are intentionally crafted and spun to sustain the outrage of the click of origin. The longer you spend on a page the more ads you see; and the more likely you are to click on one of them. And if you’re outrage continues, just maybe your state of motivated curiosity will increase the odds of you wanting to find out more about how ‘this one trick could earn you $1000 a day for the rest of your life!’

And if that wasn’t bad enough, outrage has a speculative futures market as well. If clicks are the gold standard currency of the outrage economy, votes are the shares of stock. If enough outrage towards an issue or a person can be generated over time a climate of confirmation bias is cultivated. Having been motivated towards impassioned investigation without higher thinking people develop a pattern of opinions towards what outrages them. The experience of outrage becomes associated with an issue like abortion or a particular politician so that, when an individual encounters something does not confirm their opinion they respond with the surprised anger to which they’ve become accustomed. It sounds like this:

“I can’t believe you’re for killing babies!” “I can’t believe you are a woman hating pig!”  Neither are statements are accurate, both are outrageous. 

Having trained our neural pathways towards outrage with a hundred clicks a day, higher critical thinking about complex issues has become laborious and unnatural. The political world is leveraging this with astounding efficiency. We just experienced an election that, when viewed through this lens, was predominately marked by an encouragement to ignore the intricacies of policies and the complexities of ideals and instead to be outraged by ‘that nasty woman’ or the ‘basket of deplorable’ and vote accordingly. Setting aside any political preferences or debates on the candidates actual qualities, I think it’s safe to say that in 2016 ‘he who created the most outrage won.’

Fortunately, the solution is simple - check your outrage. Outrage ought to be reserved for the truly outlandish injustices. If everything and everyone that opposes my personal proclivities is categorized as outrageous, then nothing is truly outrageous and I will fail to critically think about anything. We just react with attack. The moment you feel outrage over a link or a story decide to be a skeptic about it’s intentions. If it’s causing you outrage, it’s probably because that’s what the source of the content desires from you. Leading with skepticism engages your prefrontal cortex and short circuits the biochemical anger response and allows you to remain unimpassioned and critically examine and dissect the content. To put is simply:

Think before you click.

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Fasting and Fight Club

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