Moral Panic & The Joy of Piling On

In the face of a panic it is the job of those who know better to stand and say… wait… this is misplaced anxiety. — Malcolm Gladwell.

The quotation above is from Gladwell’s recent podcast entitled, “The Imaginary Crimes of Margit Hamosh.” It reminds me of the famous poem by Martin Niemöller, the one that begins, “First they came for the Socialists…” and ends with “Then they came for me—and there was no one left to speak for me.” Why, indeed, do people not speak up? The podcast recounts the story of Dr. Hamosh, a scientist at Georgetown accused of scientific misconduct, at a time—the early nineties—when such accusations were sprouting like weeds. Put through untold hours of scrutiny and reputation-destroying questioning by the NIH’s Office of Research Integrity (ORI), her offense seems to have turned on using the word “presently” – as the English do – to mean “soon,” rather than how (most but not all) Americans do, to mean “now.” (She was ultimately exonerated; Gladwell wrote about the story in the Washington Post, for those interested.) Gladwell’s point is that the diligent ORI was, in the hunt for the supposed epidemic of scientific misconduct, destroying careers and reputations – and no one stood to say, “wait, this is misplaced anxiety.”

So the panic that Gladwell has in mind is not that of patrons at a movie theater on fire, but rather a moral panic, the worry that some moral transgression is happening everywhere with dire consequences, and must be stopped, damn the cost.

Moral panics come about with some regularity whenever a sufficiently large number of humans get together, which is to say pretty much all the time. Americans are probably most familiar with the moral panic surrounding witchcraft and the subsequent Salem witch trials in the late 17th century. Twenty people (and even two dogs) were executed when all was said and done, illustrating the awesome power of moral panics to destroy. The twenty people killed by the moral mob were, of course, innocent of witchcraft, to say nothing of the poor dogs.

The worry – really, the panic – that witches and witchcraft were everywhere were, in Gladwell’s phrase, “misplaced anxiety.” Why did no one stand and say this?

That is an interesting psychological question, and one that remains timely. For instance, Gladwell links the investigations of scientific fraud to the scare in Belgium in the late nineties that led to the recall of 2.5 million bottles of Coke… which turned out to be just fine. Moral panics can seemingly break out any time anywhere about anything.

On the psychology front, moral panics have a number of shared features, but I’ll focus  on just two, one in the remainder of this post, and one in the next.

Taking the first of these two features, as Gladwell’s quote points out, in the face of these massive miscarriages of justice and lives ruined, there is often a distinct lack of individuals who know better to stand up. In fact, modern experiences with moral transgressions seem to paint a different, even, the opposite picture: an eagerness to pile on. The headline the Times ran on the story about the woman who, granted, had a moment of stupidity, captures it precisely: “How One Stupid Tweet Blew Up Justine Sacco’s Life.” The Twitter mob – the current incarnation of the normal, everyday mob with their torches and pitchforks – knows no mercy.

To drift into academic matters for a moment, this seems to fit uneasily with many theories of morality. Many modern theories of morality – though by no means all – focus on notions of harm and deterrence. Why do we morally condemn and punish? To prevent future harm. But that seems hard to square with Twitter mobbing. Surely after the first critical replies Justine would never, ever so tweet again. (And this holds aside the question of whether the “harm” here is covered by theories of morality.) Why do third parties delight in jumping on the moralistic bandwagon, expressing their disapproval, heaping punishment after punishment on the perpetrator?

I don’t propose to answer this vexing question here – though I’ve worked with my former student Peter DeScioli for the reader interested in the sort of answer I favor. As a very informal matter, one sort of (proximate, unsatisfying) answer is simply that people enjoy piling on. Having seen a moral mob or two, I can say that my sense is that people take great joy in expressing the moral failing of the victim of the day. The word that always occurs to me is gleeful. The carrion feeding on Aziz Ansari’s corpse – see below — seemed to me to do so with glee. This, of course, pushes the question back: why is piling on so enjoyable?

A second sort of answer is, perhaps obviously, the cost of speaking up. In research with Alex Shaw and Peter DeScioli, we have found that in certain contexts even simply remaining neutral, let alone coming in on the “wrong” side, can be costly to one’s social relationships. Others make inferences about you based on the moral judgments you make. “Can you believe that scientist had an error in her 50,000 word grant proposal?! She’s a horrible person, right?” The correct answer – as long as one isn’t, the sort that “knows better” and is willing to “stand up” – is always an emphatic “right!” We burnish our moral credentials by condemning the person everyone else is standing in line to condemn. That is, piling on confers a reputational benefit: one is signaling one’s moral virtue and, so, how good a group member and individual one is.

The full answer is no doubt more complex. But whatever the reasons, the larger point here is that piling on is a key feature of moral panics, and, really, the one that Gladwell is pointing to in the quotation. We should strive to understand why it happens, and, of course, as people, we should strive to be the ones standing up instead of the ones piling on.

Do we?

When I think of modern moral panics, the case of Aziz Ansari I mentioned above comes to mind. Now, don’t misunderstand me. I absolutely believe that sexual assault, harassment, and indeed any coercion should be punished. Now, regarding the now-famous account of a woman’s date with Aziz Ansari, opinions seem to vary regarding his behavior. Was it harassment or coercion? Or was it something less than that? Whatever it was, Caitlin Flanagan at the Atlantic characterizes the result this way:

… what she and the writer who told her story created was 3,000 words of revenge porn. The clinical detail in which the story is told is intended not to validate her account as much as it is to hurt and humiliate Ansari. Together, the two women may have destroyed Ansari’s career, which is now the punishment for every kind of male sexual misconduct, from the grotesque to the disappointing.

The “clinical detail” is interesting in its own right, and I’ll return to that next week. But the other part of the hurting and humiliating of Ansari isn’t the detail per se, but it’s the decision to write about the evening publically. Ansari’s career could probably have withstood the clinical details if they were rendered only to the woman’s circle of friends. The details help, but the real attack is in the decision to go public. Given the human love of piling on, making the incident public was the key piece in cementing viral disparagement of Ansari.

Gladwell is right that those who know better ought to stand up. The psychology that underlies human morality – especially the peculiar tendency for people to enjoy joining the moral mob – explains, however, why they generally do not. I’ll return to some of the consequences of this in my next post.