As individuals and political leaders increasingly interact in online social networks, it is important to understand the dynamics of emotion perception online. Here, we propose that social media users overperceive levels of moral outrage felt by individuals and groups, inflating beliefs about intergroup hostility. Using a Twitter field survey, we measured authors’ moral outrage in real time and compared authors’ reports to observers’ judgements of the authors’ moral outrage. We find that observers systematically overperceive moral outrage in authors, inferring more intense moral outrage experiences from messages than the authors of those messages actually reported. This effect was stronger in participants who spent more time on social media to learn about politics. Preregistered confirmatory behavioural experiments found that overperception of individuals’ moral outrage causes overperception of collective moral outrage and inflates beliefs about hostile communication norms, group affective polarization and ideological extremity. Together, these results highlight how individual-level overperceptions of online moral outrage produce collective overperceptions that have the potential to warp our social knowledge of moral and political attitudes.
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We thank members of the Crockett Lab for valuable feedback throughout the project. We also thank members of the Greene and Cushman Moral Psychology Research Lab, members of the Deghani Computational Social Science Laboratory and members of the Willer Polarization and Social Change Lab for feedback from a laboratory presentation of this work. We thank J. Lees for feedback on analyses. We thank A. Goolsbee who contributed to the construction of the observer-phase survey in studies 1–3. We thank A. Blevins for designing Figs. 1 and 4. This project was supported by the National Science Foundation, award no. 1808868 (awarded to W.J.B.) and the Democracy Fund, award no. R-201809-03031 (awarded to W.J.B. and M.J.C.). The funders had no role in study design, data collection and analysis, decision to publish or preparation of the manuscript.
The authors declare no competing interests.
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Brady, W.J., McLoughlin, K.L., Torres, M.P. et al. Overperception of moral outrage in online social networks inflates beliefs about intergroup hostility. Nat Hum Behav 7, 917–927 (2023). https://doi.org/10.1038/s41562-023-01582-0