Incentivizing Outrage

One of the primary laws of human nature is that people respond to incentives. Changing incentives changes people’s behavior, often dramatically.

Ten years ago, if a college student suffered some mild offence, they’d learn that complaining about it would get them labeled a whiner. They had an incentive to shrug it off and move on.

If the same student suffered the same minor offense today, our new incentives reward an entirely different response. If they shrug it off, nothing happens. No one cheers for them or celebrates them or calls them brave. But if they get outraged, and make a huge hairy deal of it, they can be all over YouTube, become a meme, and get their fifteen minutes of fame with very little effort.

Even better, they can get people fired. They can destroy the lives of people they’re mad at. That’s some serious power. It must make them feel really righteous.

(Imagine if you had the power to get someone you disliked fired, simply by acting like a toddler. You might pass on the opportunity the first time, maybe the second, but sooner or later, the temptation, the incentive, might make it irresistible.)

When Timothy Wolf ran away, he reinforced powerful incentives for students everywhere. They’ve learned all they have to do, to get whatever they want, is skip a few meals or go on strike or hold a rally, and do it all very loudly.

This could have been an amazing teaching opportunity, a chance to experiment with different approaches to the problem. For instance, the students could have been encouraged to deal with racism and perceived racism head on, one-on-one, with the people who have offended them. The students who really were being offensive would learn to behave or get out. The ones who weren’t might even be able to help the easily offended wise up.

It might not have worked. Other approaches might be better. But whatever the approaches, and whatever their results, they would have been better than teaching students that the most rewarding way to deal with any offense is to have a full blown tantrum and crank it up to eleven.

6 Comment(s)

  1. I was just reading a similar article about outrage culture.

    Do you think the media manufactured the outrage in Tim’s case, or was there a substantial amount of it prior to the media’s coverage?

    Kama Kairade | Nov 25, 2015 | Reply

  2. Good article. And yes, this happens all the time.

    I saw an article that claimed “Atheists are OUTRAGED at Carrie Underwood’s New Song.” Really? She’s got a new song? None of the many atheists I know ever heard of it. I looked it up – it was a silly little gospel song by a silly little performer. Outraged? Pfft. Who cares?

    But in this article I’m talking about something different. This isn’t just the media going nuts, this is college students going nuts. It’s the fruition of an entire generation getting “participation” trophies for playing games where no one keeps score, lest someone get their feelings hurt by losing. They really are outraged, about everything, and nearly everything they’re pissed about is either trivial or blown WAY out of proportion.

    Hittman | Nov 29, 2015 | Reply

  3. I’m only 33, but I think I’ll be the last generation to know what the world was like before this. It goes way beyond college campuses, as you know. Remember the restaurant owner in Maine who made the national news because she…(gasp) YELLED AT A CHILD who was being loud and disruptive in her restaurant? When I was growing up, adults yelled at kids all the time. And you know what? We needed to be yelled at! That’s how kids learn! They need to be corrected because manners haven’t sunken in for them yet. It just boggles my mind that stuff that used to be no big deal is now making the NATIONAL NEWS and eliciting comments from the freaking PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES in some cases.

    A few years ago, I was shopping in a crowded store. I was trying to reach my wife and our friends at the checkout, so I was kind of weaving around, trying to get around the browsers who were blocking all the aisles. Well, I turned a corner and a woman ran over my foot with a baby stroller. Baby started crying, mother started FREAKING OUT. In fact, when I was standing in line, I heard her say “that’s the man who ran into me and made my baby cry!” to her friend. A friend of mine piped up and said, “actually ma’am, you ran into him.” She got all flustered and said something about how I should have watched where I was going. But this is the kind of thing I’m talking about. Too many parents are unable to tolerate the SLIGHTEST inconvenience or discomfort for their children. Honestly, I’m probably lucky I didn’t get on CNN or MSNBC over the incident. A Kardashian must have been jiggling her butt at something for some reason, so that must have been more important than “tourist woman’s baby suffers mild inconvenience and does something that babies have done for hundreds of thousands of years.”

    And I think I know what the culprit to blame is: social media, especially Facebook and YouTube. The problem with social media is that sites like Facebook, and now even Google, allow you to self-filter your information. If you’re on Facebook, you can easily surround yourself with only people who agree with you on politics, religions, etc.

    Back in the day, when you actually went outside to socialize with other people, it was all random. You never knew what would happen with the next person you met. Would they be a crazy nut job or would they blow your mind with some novel way of looking at something you never thought of? Instead of using the internet to intermix with people and expand horizons, people are huddling together in virtual enclaves of thought. Reddit is a perfect example. You can customize the site completely to your tastes and opinions. As a result, these enclaves called “subreddits” have formed, some of which are decent, some of which are just echo-chambers. If you’re sad you can’t find a girlfriend because you dress weird and lack all sense of personal hygiene, there’s a subreddit filled with thousands of man children just like you who will tell you that it’s not your fault, it’s the women! You don’t need to change anything about yourself! The world should adjust to you because you DESERVE to be happy with zero effort on your part! Are you far-left? There’s /r/politics. Far-right? /r/conservative. Racist? Don’t even get me started!

    The point is, people in general have failed to utilize the great potential social media could give us by expanding our horizons in favor of simply setting up echo chambers for us to tickle each others’ ears. These enclaves can become very, very noisy and very, very good at attracting the attention of bored and corrupt news media outlets. They’re still a small, tiny fraction of the population, but social media helps them clump together like a massive, shrieking Voltron of “social justice” and get far more attention than they deserve.

    Brian | Nov 29, 2015 | Reply

  4. Well said, and I agree completely.

    And when it comes to an echo chamber, no one is worse than lefties. Get into a FB discussion/argument with a libertarian, or a right winger, or a neo-con, or an anarchist, or a slightly left of center person – no problem. Even if it gets heated they’ll stick around. But annoy a far-lefty, and two replies later they’ve blocked you and put you on ignore.

    They simply won’t risk the horrible, horrible feeling of having someone question their beliefs, and will tuck their twitching tail between their quivering legs and retreat to their Safe Space, which is lined with shelves full of Participation Trophies.

    Dave Hitt | Dec 7, 2015 | Reply

  5. I read a lot of comments on Facebook, mostly on local news stories where I live in West Michigan. Most of what I see from right-wing people in the comments are “Sending prayers for the victims!” slacktivism or something horrifyingly racist or downright fascist. I also see atheist neckbeards jump in with unsolicited “your God is a lie!!” jabs occasionally, but rarely.

    I don’t have that experience you do with “lefties.” I’ve had a lot of fruitless conversations with right-wingers who had their Bibles shoved so far up their asses they couldn’t be reasoned with. I just see a lot more crazy on the right-wing side of things than the left. I see SOME craziness on the left for sure, but right-wing craziness has that element of hate and fear with it.

    Maybe that’s because of where I happen to live. Maybe it’s because I don’t pay as much attention to liberals as I do to conservatives. Maybe where I live (West Michigan is this weird, hyper-religious conservative enclave) has something to do with that. That’s just my experience.

    Brian | Dec 8, 2015 | Reply

  6. I forgot to add, I think a lot of the right-wing craziness stems from right-wing religiosity. I have some very close friends who are non-religious right wingers and we’ve had very good conversations. I think the problem is you have religion tied up with the Republican party so much, its followers tend to look less respectable generally, especially to the rest of the world.

    If you’re comparing non-religious right-wingers with non-religious left-wingers, I’d agree that in that subset, the left-wingers have more craziness.

    Brian | Dec 8, 2015 | Reply

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