It is almost election time again. But the normally low-turnout midterm may not be in the cards this time around, owing to the outrage on both sides of the political spectrum. And some believe that it’s a shame that we have these levels of moral outrage: It diminishes our civility and exaggerates the already-extreme polarization of society. But does it get people to vote? The social science says it does. In a new research article (Spring, Cameron & Cikara, 2018), a team from Penn State focusing on moral psychology note that the research is starting to show that moral outrage can be beneficial when some conditions are met. The article, covered in a piece at ScienceDaily, points to motivation as the key benefit.

The team cites a study showing that inducing some moral outrage in women (in this case by sharing information that a majority of men hold hostile and sexist beliefs) are more likely to channel that anger into an intention to join collective action for equal salaries, and to actually participate in political action at a later time. One need only look at numbers at the 2017 women’s marches to see this bear out in reality. According to one of the authors, Assistant Professor C. Daryl Cameron, “outrage can get you to care, can get you motivated to sign petitions, can get you to volunteer, things which have outcomes that are much longer-term than signaling.” So that poses a question for trial lawyers and witnesses: When is outrage okay?

When Can a Lawyer or Witness Convey Outrage…with Reasonable Safety?

The answer to the question, “When can a lawyer or witness display some outrage” probably isn’t “Never,” and definitely isn’t “Whenever you feel like it.” Courtrooms are hallowed grounds, but that doesn’t mean they’re emotion-free. Jurors and judges still need to be motivated to care about one side or the other, and outrage can be part of that. At the same time, that isn’t a license to go to uncomfortable extremes or to respond in ways your audience might not see as appropriate or sincere. I believe that there are a few conditions that should apply before a lawyer or a witness feels comfortable pressing that “outrage” button.

When You’ve Dealt With the Substance First

No one wants to feel like they are being manipulated, and an emotional display, even if sincere, can feel like manipulation. So if you’re outraged at the false accusations against you, show that they’re false, then show a little outrage by sharing how you feel about being accused. If you haven’t won your credibility back yet, then emotional displays just weaken that credibility. The audience needs to understand that you aren’t offering emotion as a substitute for logic.

When You’re Respectful and Restrained

Respectfully airing your feelings is one thing, and vindictive counterattacks are another. One of the reasons many recoiled at Bret Kavanaugh’s conveyed outrage during the last Supreme Court confirmation hearing is that he wasn’t just venting his feelings, he was also counterattacking Democratic Senators, and seeming to threaten revenge (“What goes around comes around“). A restrained response is generally going to be more compelling.

When Your Target Audience Feels It

One key principle is that the audience should get there first. No one is moved to outrage by just seeing someone else who is outraged. Rather, if we already feel some outrage, then seeing it from another can validate those feelings and raise the credibility of that person. So the question of whether it works to emphasize your outrage would be whether the ones you need to persuade are likely to know enough and feel enough, at this point, in order to be able to access their own outrage along with you.

When You Feel It

Importantly, any outrage you show should be an expression, not a display. Unless you are a serious contender for an Academy Award, you are not going to be able to credibly act outraged. Jurors often feel like they can see through a speaker or witness, and will sometimes treat even sincere expressions as a calculated and practiced performance. So one rule is, you have to feel it at that moment.

That last rule can feel the most compelling from behind the lectern or in the witness chair. If you feel it, then it can feel “authentic” to convey it. That can tempt speakers to go big sometimes when it would be more credible to keep it small. Real, timely, and appropriate outrage can be part of the motivation an audience feels. But this is a case where less is generally more, and not just one but all four of these conditions ought to be present.