Asking people how “voluntary,” “natural,” “familiar,” etc. they consider a situation is an improvement over simply asking them how outraged they are about the situation. Because it’s usable before the outrage itself is manifest, it has more predictive value. And because it asks separately about each of the outrage factors, it has more diagnostic value.

It has two great weaknesses. The first weakness is its assumption that people who checked “2” on a seven-point (or five- or ten-point) Likert scale from “unfamiliar” to “familiar” are actually more outraged or more likely to become outraged about some situation’s unfamiliarity than people who checked “3.” In other words, the Likert scale method assumes that people’s reaction to a global concept like “familiarity,” “trust,” “control,” and the rest is systematically correlated with how outrage-prone the situation is. That may be true, but it’s not proven and it’s not obvious.

The second weakness of using Likert scales to measure outrage potential is the need to combine the separate factors into one numerical total. The usual way to do this is simply adding them up. But there’s no reason to assume the 20 outrage factors are equally powerful.

After 40-odd years of outrage-related consulting, I know they’re not. “Trust,” “control,” and “responsiveness” are far likelier to be major sources of outrage than, say, “naturalness” or “dread.” There are exceptions; sometimes naturalness or dread is the 800-pound gorilla. But I don’t think that happens often. And I damn well know the 20 factors aren’t equal.

I tried to get around these two problems with my “OUTRAGE Prediction & Management” software. I wrote literally hundreds of questions about the various outrage factors (just the twelve biggies), and I kept tinkering with the math until I had produced an algorithm that replicated my consulting experience. For actual situations I had worked on, in other words, the software consistently yielded a “total outrage” figure that matched what had actually happened. That made me willing to bet that for new situations the “total outrage” figure the software yielded would match what was going to happen.

Of course the software doesn’t just predict total outrage. It partitions it among the twelve factors and in some cases even subfactors. And it estimates the impact on outrage if the organization decided to change particular policies in order to change particular answers.

The software has its own weaknesses. You can’t get stakeholders to answer hundreds of questions for you, so the software needs to be completed instead by a group of people in the organization who trust their collective guesses about how the relevant stakeholders would answer. Even at that, it takes a bunch of hours for them to answer all the questions. In practice, even companies that purchased the software didn’t use it much; they typically found it quicker and easier to bring me in as a consultant instead. So in 2009 I made it freeware and posted in on my website.

The bottom line for measuring outrage, as I see it:

1. To measure manifest outrage (Level 0 or 00), simply measure the outraged behavior. Count stakeholders’ angry letters or social media postings; count how many rocks are thrown at your car; etc.

2. To measure Level 1 outrage, ask people how outraged they are – how upsetting the situation is for them.

3. To measure Level 2 outrage, ask people separately about each of the outrage factors. That’s the Likert scale methodology you suggest. Or use something like my software. Or give up on quantification and go the qualitative route: read the local media; talk with people in bars and supermarkets and buses (or in focus groups); really get to know the community.

Moral panic versus outrage

I don’t know a great deal about moral panic theory, as developed by sociologist Stanley Cohen and others. From what little I know, I certainly do see some commonality with outrage.

But I have a strong impression that “moral panic” – as the term implies – is usually applied to situations where mainstream values are threatened by some new and offensive behavior, leading to a distinctive mix of disapproval (the “moral” part) and fear (the “panic” part).

One of the classic examples seems to be when drug-using young people move into a middle-class neighborhood and start harassing their more conventional neighbors. The term also gets applied to overreactions to serious but uncommon crimes (child molesting in kindergartens, for example), and to outright bigotry aimed at nonconformist but perfectly law-abiding groups (minority races, idiosyncratic religions, etc.).

By contrast, I initially developed the outrage concept to describe the mix of disapproval and fear felt by neighbors of a polluting industrial facility, who are likely to believe the facility’s emissions are dangerous (whether they are or not) because the facility’s management is arrogant, secretive, and unresponsive.

So moral panic is most characteristically what majorities feel about offensive minorities (who are often referred to in the moral panic literature as “folk devils”), whereas outrage is most characteristically what ordinary folks feel about powerful plutocrats. Still, both moral panic and outrage are mixtures of disapproval and fear. And as you say, both are exacerbated by exaggeration.

The Wikipedia summary lists five characteristics of moral panic: concern, hostility, consensus, disproportionality, and volatility. Concern and hostility are certainly characteristic of outrage as well. Consensus and disproportionality are sometimes but not always characteristic of outrage; small groups of stakeholders can experience outrage their neighbors decidedly do not share, and justified outrage needn’t be disproportionate at all. As for volatility, I would never say of outrage what Wikipedia says of moral panics, that they “tend to disappear as quickly as they appeared due to a wane in public interest or news reports changing to another topic.”

But as I say, I don’t know much about moral panic. You wrote me (offline) that you plan to apply both the moral panic perspective and the outrage perspective to your master’s thesis on genetically modified food. By the time you finish you will know a lot more than I do about how the two perspectives relate to each other.

Creator of the “Risk = Hazard + Outrage” formula for risk communication, Peter M. Sandman is one of the preeminent risk communication speakers and consultants in the United States today, and has also worked extensively in Europe, Australia, and elsewhere. His unique and effective approach to managing risk controversies has made him much in demand for other sorts of reputation management as well.

Dr. Sandman has helped his clients through a wide range of public controversies that threatened corporate or government reputation – from oil spills to labor-management battles; from vaccine autism scares to the siting of hazardous waste facilities. In the terms first popularized by Dr. Sandman, these are usually situations where the “hazard” is low, the “outrage” is high, and the core task is outrage management.

Dr. Sandman also works on the other side of risk issues, helping activists arouse concern about serious hazards, for example, and helping companies persuade employees to take safety rules seriously. Here the task is precaution advocacyin a high-hazard, low-outrage situation.

Finally, Dr. Sandman works on crisis communication– terrorist attacks and epidemics, for example – where hazard and outrage are both high and the goal is to help people bear their emotions and take appropriate actions.

A Rutgers University professor from 1977 to 1995, Dr. Sandman founded the Environmental Communication Research Program (ECRP) at Rutgers in 1986, and was its Director until 1992. During that time, ECRP published over 80 articles and books on various aspects of risk communication. In 1995 Dr. Sandman left the university and became a full-time consultant. He received his Ph.D. in Communication from Stanford University in 1971.

“The engine of risk response is outrage,” Dr. Sandman argues. “Sometimes the problem is too little outrage; people are apathetic and I help my client arouse more outrage so they protect themselves. Other times the problem is too much outrage; people are excessively angry or frightened – usually because of things my client has done wrong – and I help find ways to calm the situation. Still other times the outrage is rightly high about a risk that is genuinely serious, and the job is to help people bear it and sustain it and act on it.”

Dr. Sandman’s sense of humor, his sense of realism, and his ability to help people understand all sides of risk controversies make him much in demand for all three jobs.

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