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Modern Outrage and the Perversion of Punishment

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Abstract: Punishment of wrongdoing is a hallmark of human moral psychology. Humans are willing to punish moral transgressions even when they are personally unaffected, often at great personal cost. Recent work in neuroeconomics has begun to characterize the neurobiology of moralistic punishment behavior and its affective precursors such as moral outrage. This work indicates that moral outrage and punishment engage the brain’s reinforcement learning circuitry, which in turn suggests that moralistic punishment is susceptible to habitization. If this is the case, then expressions of moral values through punishment may sometimes be involuntary and vulnerable to external control (e.g., via social media algorithms that prioritize user engagement). I will provide preliminary evidence for this possibility with analyses of moral outrage expressions in millions of social media posts. I will argue that new technologies may be altering moral outrage and punishment such that the ultimate function of punishment—the enforcement of social cooperation—is being perverted, with potentially troubling implications for democratic public discourse.

Dr Molly Crockett is an Assistant Professor of Psychology at Yale University and a Distinguished Research Fellow at the Oxford Centre for Neuroethics. Prior to joining Yale, Dr Crockett was a University Lecturer at the University of Oxford’s Department of Experimental Psychology and a Fellow of Jesus College. She holds a BSc in Neuroscience from UCLA and completed a PhD in Experimental Psychology from the University of Cambridge as a Gates Scholar, and was a Sir Henry Wellcome Postdoctoral Fellow, working with economists and neuroscientists at the University of Z├╝rich and University College London.

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