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Overperception of moral outrage in online social networks inflates beliefs about intergroup hostility


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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Fig. 1: Overview of Twitter field study method.
Fig. 2: Evidence of overperception of individuals’ moral outrage on Twitter.
Fig. 3: Observers’ overperception of outrage is positively associated with their daily political social media use.
Fig. 4: Depiction of newsfeed manipulation in a mock social media environment.
Fig. 5: Overperception of outrage in newsfeeds amplifies perceptions of collective outrage and beliefs about outrage norms.

Data availability

All de-identified data are available at and Data may not be used for commercial purposes.

Code availability

All analysis scripts are available at and Code may not be used for commercial purposes.


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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.

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W.J.B., K.L.M., M.G. and M.J.C. designed the research. W.J.B., K.L.M., M.T. and K.L. performed the research. W.J.B. analysed the data with input from M.J.C. W.J.B. wrote the paper with input from M.J.C. and all authors contributed to revisions.

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Correspondence to William J. Brady or M. J. Crockett.

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Nature Human Behaviour thanks Robb Willer and the other, anonymous, reviewer(s) for their contribution to the peer review of this work. Peer reviewer reports are available.

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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).

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