Personal provocation


The feeling when someone's action goes against your moral values. You can't believe that a person could do something like this. You have the urge to speak out about what this person did.

You feel indignation when someone crosses the line of what you think is morally right or acceptable. For example, if you see a car driver speeding in a residential area, when you read a tabloid article about the adultery of a celebrity, or when you find out that company managers have fired many employees while increasing their own bonus. In each of these cases, you witness other people doing something that is harmful, disrespectful, or unfair to others.

Unlike other anger-emotions1, indignation can also be evoked by events that have nothing to do with you or anyone you know. For instance, you may become indignant when you read in the paper that thousands of people in another country were injured in a chemical spill by a negligent company, even if you don’t know anyone involved.

Researchers identified five themes that are relevant in moral judgment: Harm (e.g., you see someone hitting a child), fairness (e.g., you see someone being ripped off in a store), in-group loyalty (e.g., you hear a colleague speak badly about your company to people from outside), repect for authority (e.g., you find out students regularly degrade and make fun of a teacher), and purity (e.g., you learn that someone has slept with a great number of people). How people prioritize these values – which violation evokes indignation most quickly and intensely – depends on their personal worldview and political inclination.

Because the person experiencing it is often not directly involved in the matter, indignation often gives people the urge to tell others about the wrongdoing. By letting more people know, they hope – at least implicitly – that the news will reach people that can do something about it (e.g., politicians), or that it can mobilize enough people to reach a critical mass (e.g., forming an activist group).

In the comic, Murphy passes the copy room where a colleague is stocking up on an unusual amount of print supplies. It is clear that this colleague is getting them for his own use, and that he does not feel the slightest bit of remorse over this.

Movie clips

Typical expressions

“How could you do something like that?!”

“I can't believe he is getting away with this.”

Murphy's bad day

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Comparisons with other emotions

Indignation & Anger

Anger and indignation both include a moral dimension – someone did something bad. The difference is that for anger the action is personal (you did something bad to me), whereas indignation is bad in a more general sense, for instance, for society. Often, indignation is about violating a social rule or harming standard (e.g., you should not steal). For instance, if you read a story about a manager who stole millions from his company, you could experience indignation, but not anger, because it had nothing to do with you. On the other hand, if someone is not paying attention and smashes their car into yours, you can become angry, but probably not indignant, because there was no social rule violated.

Indignation & Contempt

Indignation and contempt often seem to go hand in hand: if you hear about a politician stealing public money, you are likely to feel both emotions. The most important difference is that indignation is triggered by specific actions (e.g., hurting, stealing), whereas contempt is triggered by knowing about a characteristic (e.g., greediness, ruthlessness). As such, you can feel contempt for someone just for which group they belong to or who they are, without knowing about anything specific they have done. Additionally, when you get indignant about something someone did, you do not automatically feel contempt for them. If you believe that the action was a one-time incident, and not an overall reflection of their character, you can leave contempt out of the equation.

Indignation & Resentment

Resentment and indignation are both anger-type emotions that respond to injustice. For example, if someone swindles you out of your savings, you will probably feel both indignation and resentment. The difference between the emotions is that indignation responds to social injustice, while resentment responds to personal injustice. For example, you may feel indignation when you read that a CEO of some company is making a million times more than the lowest paid employee, but feel resentment when you find out that your colleague, who is doing the same work as you are, is making 25% more than you. In the resentment case the pay difference is a lot smaller, but it involves a direct comparison with yourself. A consequence is that people who feel indignation tend to speak out about the injustice, as it concerns everyone, whereas people who feel resentful tend to keep their feelings to themselves, as the injustice is strictly personal, and your concerns are perhaps more selfish.