Undercover Economist

Oxfam, #MeToo and the psychology of outrage

This week I overheard someone describing Oxfam as “all a bit Jimmy Savile”. When the UK’s most prominent development charity finds itself being compared to the UK’s most infamous sex offender, it’s safe to say that Oxfam has had a bad week.

The allegations are certainly disturbing: that senior Oxfam staff made liberal use of prostitutes in the wake of the catastrophic Haiti earthquake of 2010 — a crime, as well as an abuse of trust — and that Oxfam quietly showed them the door rather than take a blow to its reputation. The blow has landed now, and it is a heavy one. (Oxfam denies there was any cover-up.)

This is hardly the first wave of outrage to break. Before Oxfam there was the Presidents Club dinner — a men-only fundraiser at which waitresses were treated as sex objects. One FT investigation and the organisation was closed within hours.

There was Harvey Weinstein and the emergence of the #MeToo movement from niche to mainstream. There was the UK parliamentary expenses scandal. Then there are campaigns to take Cecil Rhodes’s statue off an Oxford college, and — from a different political direction — campaigns to ban transgender people from using the public bathroom they prefer.

Where does the outrage come from, and why does it seem to emerge so suddenly? Media reporting is often a trigger, but for every hard-hitting investigation that unleashes a sustained storm, a dozen squalls blow over swiftly.

One clue comes from a large research study of jury-style deliberations, conducted by psychologists Daniel Kahneman and David Schkade, along with Cass Sunstein, who has recently been exploring the dynamics of outrage. (Mr Sunstein was a senior official in the Obama administration, co-author with Richard Thaler of Nudge and is a legal scholar at Harvard Law School.)

This study looked at debates over punitive damage awards against corporations. When individual jurors felt a corporate crime was outrageous, the group displayed a “severity shift”. The group’s verdict could be more severe than any individual’s initial impression. The jurors egged each other on.

But juries could also display a “leniency shift”; if individuals thought the crime was trivial the jury as a whole would often feel even less worried. Sometimes we don’t know how to feel until we see how other people feel. We are, rightly, much more relaxed about gay cabinet ministers than we used to be, and this is partly because everyone sees that everyone else feels there is nothing shameful about it.

The severity shift and the leniency shift contribute to outrage being unpredictable. Our initial impressions are reinforced once we see what other people think.

But not all of these shifts are in favour of progressive causes. One experiment — conducted by economists Leonardo Bursztyn, Georgy Egorov, and Stefano Fiorin — examined people’s willingness to support an apparently xenophobic organisation. In 2016, people often wanted anonymity before they were willing to back the xenophobes.

US president Donald Trump changed that. When people were reminded that Mr Trump was leading in the polls in their state, anonymity no longer mattered. When the experiment was rerun after his election victory, the result was the same: some people were xenophobes and some were not, but in the Trump era, nobody kept their xenophobia in the closet.

The force of these jolts to public opinion is amplified by several other factors. Over the past year, it has become safer to speak out about sexual harassment, but it has also become riskier to make light of it. This reinforces the trend.

And the sudden salience of an issue may bring further problems to light. One woman tells her story of sexual assault at the hands of a famous man, and other women come forward to say that he’s done the same thing to them.

Or, since everyone is now concerned about sexual exploitation by Oxfam staff in Haiti, where else has this happened? How often? Journalists ask questions that could not have been asked a decade ago. Regulators open investigations. Other charities scramble to get ahead of the story.

The self-reinforcing dynamics mean that unpredictability is a feature of the outrage system. They also suggest that we need to learn two lessons.

The first is that we should ask ourselves, is there anything that happens in my profession, industry or community that is taken for granted, but that the wider world might view with sudden outrage? The in-crowd may lure each other into viewing transgressions with a leniency-shifted forgiveness. When everyone else pays attention, the leniency shift may flip to a severity shift.

The second is to beware tribalism. Outrage may be unpredictable, but once it has grown it is easy to manipulate for political ends, whether noble or reprehensible. Surrounded as we are with people who share our sense of outrage, it is easy to wonder why some other group just doesn’t seem to feel the same way.

Righteous outrage is a powerful weapon, and one that has smashed many barriers of injustice. We should pull the trigger of that weapon with care, not with abandon.

Written for and first published in the Financial Times on 16 February 2018.

My book “Messy: How To Be Creative and Resilient in a Tidy-Minded World” is now available in paperback both in the US and the UK – or through your local bookshop.

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