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Moral Outrage, Acting on Beliefs Appeal to Women in Search of Partner, Study Shows

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Key Takeaways

  • Women find moral outrage attractive in men who they consider for long-term relationships.
  • Acting on moral outrage, rather than just expressing it, is most attractive to women.
  • Evolutionary factors, such as reproduction, play a part in the attraction.

Men who display moral outrage—anger towards others who violate ethical standards—and act on it are seen as good candidates for long-term relationships, according to a new series of studies from the University of Arkansas.

Mitch Brown, PhD, lead researcher and psychology instructor at the University of Arkansas, says acts of outage could serve as a signal of how prosocial (positive or helpful) someone can be, which provides a downstream cue of their mate value. 

“Specifically, because of the trustworthiness and prosocial behavior inferred through being outraged and acting on it, outrage should be particularly valuable in selecting a mate for a long-term context because of that context's emphasis on selecting monogamous partners who maintain fidelity,” Brown tells Verywell.

How the Study Worked

Researchers conducted four studies that consisted of 870 heterosexual participants. The studies looked at how displays of moral outrage were perceived in the context of mating.

The researchers set up fake dating profiles of people, which included descriptions of the person’s activities. Some activities listed were rooted in outrage (i.e. removing plastic straws from beaches) and some weren’t (i.e. surfing at the local beach).

In the first three studies, researchers defined moral outrage as both specific behaviors that indicate one's interest in righting a perceived wrong (e.g., pollution, human trafficking).

In the fourth study, however, it was defined as the expression of anger without any actions. For instance, the profile might include a statement like, "I am so angry that human trafficking exists."

Based on the profiles, participants rated how outraged they thought the people were and how desirable they would be as a mate. Higher degrees of moral outrage were perceived as more desirable in a mate, according to the study, but only when they were backed by action.

Mitch Brown, PhD

Outrage should be particularly valuable in selecting a mate for a long-term context because of that context's emphasis on selecting monogamous partners who maintain fidelity.

— Mitch Brown, PhD

Why Women May Like Moral Outrage

The timing of these studies correlates with its outcomes, says Patrick Wanis, PhD, a human behavior and relationship expert.

“It wasn’t done 5 or 10 years ago, which might have had a completely different outcome. Today we seem to be morally outraged about everything, and it seems to be generally promoted as something that’s positive,” Wanis tells Verywell. 

Other reasons moral outrage may be appealing in a partner include the following factors.

Reproductive Correlation

Brown says the findings speak to the “heightened long-term mate selection criteria women set to hedge their reproductive bets because of their larger minimal metabolic costs in reproduction (e.g., pregnancy, lactation) than men's (e.g., sperm provision).”

He explains that men's moral outrage, which can cost a lot of time and effort to act on, could indicate to observers that they are capable of offsetting costs to care for children, which is important given women's historically greater likelihood of providing primary childcare duties.

“It could further indicate a capability for biparental investment that would increase the chance of offspring survival."

From an evolutionary perspective, Brown says women's reproductive costs have been historically much higher than men's with gestation, lactation, and most child-rearing responsibilities falling on them. However, as humans evolved, this changed and women moved to selecting men for more than their ability to provide what is biologically needed to make a child.

“Because outrage can be deemed as a cue to being prosocial, [and] a prosocial man is [more likely to invest in] his genetic progeny...women could infer greater intentions of care to help ensure the offspring from their relationship would have resources from both parents that would let them survive into adulthood,” Brown explains.

While outrage would be important for men too, he says their costs are not as high as women’s when it comes to reproduction.

Shows a Sense of Right and Wrong

Displaying moral outrage shows you can follow rules that keep you from harming others, says Brown.

“This rule adherence could indicate a proclivity to follow the rules of long-term mating well, which require fidelity and investing in a partner needed to facilitate biparental investment if the pair were to have a child,” he says.

Wanis adds that when it comes to long-term relationships, both men and women desire someone who has morals, and that many women look for a partner with shared values and a sense of character that indicates they are reliable, dependable, honest, and kind.

“The only people who don’t care about morality in a partner are people who themselves don’t have morality,” he says. “If we see someone taking action on behalf of a perceived moral outrage, then we think this person has good values,” he says.

Patrick Wanis, PhD

The only people who don’t care about morality in a partner are people who themselves don’t have morality. If we see someone taking action on behalf of a perceived moral outrage, then we think this person has good values.

— Patrick Wanis, PhD

A Sign of Initiative

Many women are attracted to men who take action and follow-through on promises, says Wanis. 

“When a woman sees a man who gets things done, has initiative, is proactive—that’s an appealing attributable characteristic because it makes her feel secure,” he says.

Initiative (for people of any gender) translates to a sense of trustworthiness related to reliability and dependability.

“It’s one thing to speak about moral outage. It’s another to act on that moral outrage. Women who have experience in dating and relationships will say, ‘I dated so and so, and he said he’d do this, but he’d never do it or follow through.’ They…want someone who is going to follow through, not just talk about it,” says Wanis.

Downside to Moral Outrage

Brown stresses that his research should be considered in terms of describing an evolutionary process and not a prescription for how people should behave.

“I'm talking about broad stroke behaviors that served an evolutionary function that led to successful reproduction, and nothing that says that people need to act a
certain way,” he says.

“Evolutionary theory frequently is accused of committing a naturalistic fallacy by showing what naturally happens, but most evolutionary scientists will not say that what is naturally occurring is not inherently good.”

Mitch Brown, PhD

Evolutionary theory frequently is accused of committing a naturalistic fallacy by showing what naturally happens, but most evolutionary scientists will not say that what is naturally occurring is not inherently good

— Mitch Brown, PhD

For instance, he points out that there are potential evolutionary explanations for prejudice and intimate partner violence; however, that does not mean either is a positive or good thing.

Other Outcomes of Moral Outrage

Because moral outrage can lead to social change and the correction of injustices, it is often praised. 

“[We] think that a person speaking out on behalf of a minority group or group of victims has passion for what they believe in, has character, and isn’t just sitting around. Plus, in Western society, we give a lot more attention, credence, and value to the person who speaks the loudest,” says Wanis.

However, moral outrage can also result in moral outrage toward the person expressing moral outrage.

“In other words, we can become angry or disgusted at the person who keeps complaining about how bad it is for some other group, and we start attacking that person instead of thinking about what they are actually fighting for,” Wanis says.

Patrick Wanis, PhD

We can become angry or disgusted at the person who keeps complaining about how bad it is for some other group, and we start attacking that person instead of thinking about what they are actually fighting for.

— Patrick Wanis, PhD

He refers to the term SJW (social justice warrior), which is often used in a condemnatory way to label a person rather than identify the work they do.

“What [SJW] is saying is that we’re angry and disgusted by the fact that this person is angry and disgusted at something else,” says Wanis.

Additionally, he says that fixation on moral outrage might also cause people to become desensitized to situations that may be more deserving of our focus. “We get enraged by so much that we can get numb to things that actually need attention,” he says. 

Finding a healthy balance between moral outrage and how to take action on it is something society needs to work on, he notes.

What This Means For You


When looking for a long-term partner, you may find moral outrage to be an attractive characteristic. Understanding why this might be the case can help you understand what you tend to value in a relationship.

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