Let’s kick this off with some realness: The concept of feeling offended is maddening. When someone says they’re offended by something, they are met with a mixed amount of orderly sympathy and support, and a disproportionately loud backlash led by Stephen Fry and the trigger-warning scoffers of the world. The latter are, dare we say, offended by people who get offended. And being the more vocal community, they’ve helped mold the prevailing sentiment that being offended is either narcissistic, weak, or both.
Sure, sometime’s that’s true — people are being too sensitive or too self-centered. The language there, however, is unfortunately absolute — you can say you’re impossible to offend, but maybe your place of privilege negates the experience of knowing what’s it’s like to be on the defensive end. There are plenty of legitimately offensive things in the world, some of which can be easily identified regardless of perspective.
It’s key to understand that offense doesn’t mean just one reaction to one instigation — the scientific and psychological underpinnings are different. Here’s a breakdown of three of the most common sources of offense — the truly sensitive, the morally outraged, and the easily disgusted.
You’re Too Sensitive
We throw “sensitive” around disparagingly, but some people are actually more sensitive than others. According to a study by Stony Brook University, about 20 percent of the population is genetically predisposed to empathy — they have highly sensitive brains that respond intensely to both negative and positive stimuli. Their emotional reactions are such that things are a bigger deal to them than the rest of the population, whether it’s a sensitivity to the feelings of others, themselves, or an overall perception of injustice.
On the flip side, a 2007 study from New York University found that the people who think the world is fine and dandy tend to have a diminished sense of moral outrage. Those who want to feel better about the status quo adopt beliefs that justify the way things are — and huff at the people who try to pull them away from that line of thinking.
“In order to maintain their perceptions of the world as just,” explains the Association of Psychological Science, “… they often engage in cognitive adjustments that preserve a distorted image of reality in which existing institutions are seen as more equitable and just than they are.”
The Insufferable Moralists
When I spoke with Monica Harris, a professor of the University of Kentucky, I asked whether feeling outraged was an adaptive response made necessary by our ancestors. She said that wasn’t improbable — historically, people were more likely to be attacked; readily taking offense could be be a natural defense mechanism to the world’s antagonists. That attitude doesn’t really work for people today, says Harris. We live closer to each other and have to be more mindful; she would associate the modern-day easily offended with neuroticism.
Today, some define offense-taking, as stated in the journal Cognitive Therapy and Research, as the “perceived deprivation of what is rightfully due to a person.” A person’s needs, goals, and resources determine how much someone gets offended and how likely they’ll forgive the offender.
“The phrase ‘what is rightfully due’ implies that the individual taking offense has an applicable concept of justice,” write psychologists David R. Sigmon and C.R. Snyder, “and is holding that other person accountable for having transgressed against that justice concept.”
This sense of justice seems to be overwrought and can backfire on the moralist attempting to use outrage to make change. In three sequential studies conducted in 2015, Ohio State and University of Texas business professors found that people pretty much hate it when other people talk about how ethical they are. They showed the willfully ignorant how their clothes were made and found that those people judged others who chose to buy clothes from more ethical companies as annoying and boring. Essentially, the more moral customers made them feel bad and they responded defensively.
Coming on strong with your outrage can have the opposite reaction of what you want, says study co-author Rebecca Reczek.
“Arguing that people are immoral or ‘bad’ people if they don’t engage in the desired act (whether it’s recycling or choosing sustainable seafood) is just going to turn people off and make them less likely to listen to the good reasons for choosing ethical behavior,” Reczek told Men’s Journal.
A Disposition of Disgust
If we specifically examine people who become morally offended when someone says or does something against what they consider to be right or appropriate — not those who are just personally offended — the root of that outrage may be the behavioral immune system.
“Yes, it’s fair to say that individuals who are more easily disgusted are also more likely to be morally offended by actions that violate cultural traditions or norms,” says Mark Schaller, a professor of psychology at the University of British Columbia. “This shows up, for instance, in these folks’ tendency to judge norm violations to be morally wrong. This applies to violations of cultural taboos — such as the taboo against incest — as well as to more common kinds of norm violations, such as a student’s decision to cheat on an exam.”
In his paper “The Behavioral Immune System (And Why It Matters),” Schaller notes that the behavioral immune system is a “crude line of defense” against the pathogens that may affect human health. Humans are hypersensitive to diseases and harmful agents that may be present, which triggers psychological responses. People with chronically heightened sensitivity are more likely to feel disgusted, and, therefore, outraged, by the people around them. Those who are more gregarious in their social life are in blissful ignorance of their increased likelihood of getting sick.
For example, sensitivity to the behavioral immune system is at play when someone has an outsized reaction to breaking the conventions of sexual norms, because sexual contact has the possibility of leading to illness. They’re responding to years of human existence where sex could lead to some pretty bad stuff.
“When people feel more vulnerable to infection, they are more likely to encourage other people to conform to existing traditions, and also are themselves more likely to conform to majority opinion,” Schaller says. “Disgust (which serves as a kind of emotional cue connoting potential vulnerability to infection) is also associated with more conservative and political attitudes.”