Cass R Sunstein


The problem with outrage is that it always wants to punish

And in the Brexit vote for Britain to leave the European Union, that means inflicting more harm than good on the economy, says Cass R Sunstein

The problem with outrage is that it always wants to punish

BRITAIN’S vote to leave the European Union was rooted in a widespread sense of outrage.

To understand the political psychology, and how to respond to it, it’s important to know something about outrage.

A few years ago, Daniel Kahneman of Princeton, David Schkade of the University of San Diego, and I studied how people think about punishment.

We looked at punitive damages, which juries award against gregious misconduct — say, when tobacco companies have hidden information about the health risks of smoking, or when a manufacturer has sold toys that it knows are dangerous to children.

We learned that people’s judgments are driven mainly by outrage. Jurors are “intuitive retributivists”. If a company has acted badly, people want to punish it — not to deter future misconduct, but simply because they’re outraged. And the more outraged they are, the more punishment they want to inflict.

You might think that’s obvious, but it has a major implication: People don’t like to focus on the consequences, good or bad, of punishing wrongdoers. When we tried to get them to do that, we failed.

On this count, the most striking evidence comes from the psychologist, Jonathan Baron, of the University of Pennsylvania. He and his colleagues discovered that, in deciding to impose punishment for corporate misconduct, most people will award a stiff penalty, even if the effect would be to stop a company from making a highly beneficial product, such as a life-saving vaccine.

Which brings us to the British vote. Sure, the UK had an intense debate about what would happen if the country left the EU, but many voters were simply outraged, and wanted to register that fact.

That presents a challenge for other countries facing similar, nationalist fervour — not only in Europe, but in the US, as well. Can anything be done to combat that fervour? There are three answers.

The first draws directly from behavioral science: Enlist loss-aversion. People dislike it when they incur losses from the status quo. They are far more likely to be influenced by the prospect of loss than by any possibility of gain.

In the UK, a strong majority of young people voted Remain, in part because they had a keen sense of the losses that leaving Europe could inflict. In nations debating their own possible exits — such as the Netherlands, Italy, and Denmark — those who favour continued EU membership would do well to stress what people would lose without it.

The second answer is to shift the focus of outrage. Nationalist movements often succeed in channeling pre-existing grievances, whether they involve economic stagnation, lost jobs, or a general feeling of powerlessness or humiliation. The best way to respond might be to focus, not on nationalism, but, instead, on the indifference, incompetence, or corruption of private or public institutions.

By arguing in favour of bold economic or political reforms, rather than incremental ones, unjustified nationalist impulses might be defeated.

The third answer is the bravest, and also the most respectful of voters: Engage the consequences, honestly and repeatedly. Although people who are outraged want to punish somebody, it may not be futile, in a political context, to specify a course of action that would have better consequences.

It’s true that, for those in the UK who favoured ‘Remain’, such efforts didn’t work out so well. But, at least in its immediate aftermath, Brexit is causing real harm, just as its opponents predicted. That’s ominous for other nations facing serious movements to leave the EU. And it may be ominous, too, for Americans deciding what to make of Donald Trump’s proposals to scale back US engagement with the rest of the world, to rethink trade deals, and to limit immigration. One way to respond is to argue, and try to show in concrete terms, that the result would be significant damage to many millions of Americans.

As for jurors, so, too, for voters: When citizens are outraged, retribution has immense appeal.

But when public outrage moves people toward harming their own interests, well-chosen counter-arguments about consequences have the potential to ensure that, in the words of Supreme Court Justice Louis Brandeis, “the deliberative forces prevail over the arbitrary”.

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