Scientists think they've uncovered part of the reason why people love to publicly shame others on social media platforms like Twitter.
Like many things involving the human brain, science still can't completely explain why people behave the way they do. But when it comes to one of the online world's most favorite pastimes -- humiliating others through righteous outrage -- scientists believe people are motivated by a mix of pleasure and self-affirmation.
In other words, punishing people actually triggers pleasure centers in the brain, and getting in on moral outrage allows people to feel good about themselves in contrast.
"If a source of our moral outrage is a desire to advertise our own goodness, then that helps us understand why oftentimes our moral outrage goes off the tracks," David Rand, a psychology researcher at Yale, told Vox.
Social media platforms like Twitter help people advertise their own "goodness" and receive immediate positive confirmation in the form of likes and retweets, researchers found.
That helps explain infamous public shaming cases, like the one involving Justine Sacco, a public relations professional and relative unknown who lost her job and had her life nearly ruined when an online mob went ballistic over a joke she tweeted.
"Going to Africa," Sacco tweeted on Dec. 20, 2014. "Hope I don’t get AIDS. Just kidding. I’m white!"
Sacco hopped on a flight to South Africa, blissfully unaware of the consequences of her tweet. Before she landed, Gawker's Sam Biddle had already stirred thousands of readers and Twitter users into a frenzy, pelting the 30-year-old New Yorker with innumerable hate messages and calls for her to be fired from her corporate communications job, the New York Times reported.
“We are about to watch this @JustineSacco bitch get fired," one member of the outrage mob gleefully tweeted. "In REAL time. Before she even KNOWS she’s getting fired."
When Sacco landed, her phone blew up with hate messages, her employer fired her, and another member of the Biddle-led hate mob was there at the airport, waiting to snap photos of her reaction.
"Twitter is like a Skinner box (think rats pushing a lever for a reward) for the joys of public shaming," Vox's Brian Resnick writes. "We can keep pressing the lever without any real fear of retaliation. When the Justine Saccos of the world drop a misguided comment in Twitter, that's an easy opportunity for thousands to get some morality points."
Resnick cited a 2004 study, The Neural Basis of Altruistic Punishment, which found that meting out punishment triggers chemical reactions in the dorsal striatum, a critical part of the brain's reward system. In other words, it feels good to punish people.
"It seems like our brains are wired to enjoy punishing others," Nichola Raihani, a psychologist at University College London, told Resnick.
Because social media allows users to trigger that neural reward system with little fear of retaliation, and because it offers instant gratification, joining in on an outrage pile-on is a quick way to get a happy fix, psychologists say.
"[Social media is a] forum that takes our drive to punish, and amplifies it, and leads to a huge collective overreaction in some cases, because every individual wants to express their perspective," Jillian Jordan, a psychologist at Yale, said.
"When you put it all together, you get a mob mentality."