You may not realize it, but distinguishing between genuine and strategic expressions of indignation assumes a particular scientific theory: namely, that there are two separable psychological systems that shape expressions of moral outrage. One is a “genuine” system that evaluates a transgression in light of our moral values and determines what level of outrage we actually feel. The other is a “strategic” system that evaluates our social context and determines what level of outrage will look best to others. Authentic expressions of outrage involve only the first system, whereas virtue signaling involves the second system.
This theory may be intuitively compelling, but new research suggests that it is wrong. Psychological studies reveal that a person’s authentically experienced outrage is inherently interwoven with subconscious concerns about her reputation. In other words, even genuine outrage can be strategic.
In a paper forthcoming in The Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, we show that even when people are unobserved — and thus have no incentive to signal their virtue — their sense of moral outrage is influenced by their desire to be seen positively by others.