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Simple Jury Persuasion: Anger + Disgust = Moral Outrage

Wednesday, January 15, 2014
posted by Douglas Keene

Moral_OutrageWe watch for facial expressions and verbal indications of moral outrage when doing pretrial research because it usually means the mock jurors have connected egregious conduct with strongly held beliefs. It is a connection that is nearly impossible to sever, and a development of critical interest to litigants. We’ve seen it when you would expect it (like in a case where an apartment complex’s poor hiring practices led to the murder of a young college student) and where you would not necessarily expect it (in banking transactions, contract disputes, patent cases, et cetera). When it happens, we pay very close attention. New research shines a light on why moral outrage reactions occur and (just maybe) how one might try to elicit them (if one were wanting to do that sort of thing). 

Researchers wanted to explore the interactive effect of disgust and anger with the hypothesis that the interaction of these two powerful emotions leads to moral outrage. They did two separate studies to test their hypothesis. In the first study, participants (N = 102, 1/2 male and 1/2 female, average age 34 years, recruited through Amazon Mechanical Turk) read one of two vignettes. One vignette (read by 39 participants) described a sexual assault by a man named David and the second vignette (read by 63 participants) read a vignette about military funeral picketing by the Westboro Baptist Church (widely described as a hate group). After reading the vignettes, participants were asked to mark a grid describing how angry they felt (on a 5 point scale from “not at all” to “extremely”) over either David’s actions or the church’s actions. On the same grid, they marked how disgusted they felt by the actions in the vignette (again, on a 5 point scale from “not at all” to “extremely”).

In other words (see Figure 1 below for a visual depiction of the grid used by the researchers), they rated their anger and their disgust in relation to each other. The researchers summarize the results of their work by saying that anger became a stronger predictor of moral outrage as disgust increased and that disgust became a stronger predictor of moral outrage as anger increased. The combination of the two feelings (anger and disgust) resulted in moral outrage (as hypothesized).

Disgust and anger grid

So the researchers moved on to a second study (N = 118, 63% female, average age 19 years, college undergraduates) using a murder trial fact pattern. The facts were condensed into a 20 minute presentation of evidence complete with “gruesome photographs” as well as a description of the knife wounds in the victim’s throat. Again, in the second study, the combination of anger and disgust predicted moral outrage. However, the second study showed disgust was a more consistent predictor of moral outrage (occurring across all levels of anger) while anger had to be accompanied by at least moderate levels of disgust to result in moral outrage. We’ve seen during pretrial research how quickly moral outrage spurs our mock jurors to action.

Moral outrage is a powerful emotional state. In a media interview, the first author says:

“Camera phones are everywhere. There are so many more opportunities for crimes to be captured on video which means jurors are being exposed to really emotionally charged evidence. When judges weigh the informational (probative) value versus the prejudicial value of the evidence, it is important to be very mindful that the negative emotions roused by emotionally disturbing evidence can make jurors more likely to vote guilty.”

In short, say the authors, the second study shows that eliciting disgust from your jurors is a faster route to moral outrage than is eliciting anger. And moral outrage spurs action.

Salerno JM, & Peter-Hagene LC (2013). The interactive effect of anger and disgust on moral outrage and judgments. Psychological Science, 24 (10), 2069-78 PMID: 23969778


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