Group Outrage: Why the Brain is Triggered



Differences between societal groups need to be negotiated with care if a society is to remain stable. That care seems to be collapsing in recent months.

Identity-based groups seem to be taking positions of ever increasing hostility, polarisation and combative offence. Each week, it appears a new group shouts with outrage at discrimination based on their identity. Many of us are baffled about the language they can now use which will not constitute an identity outrage, an act of oppression, bias, prejudice and discrimination.

How has society become so sensitised and hyper-aroused to any offence? Where has our restraint, or willingness to accept or listen to others vanished to?

Central to this problem is the fact that the human brain is a social brain. My brain’s response to a stimulus is affected by your brain’s response to the same stimulus. They are not independent. In the West, because we are a highly individualised society, we have misrepresented the human mind. We have over-emphasised our individual rationality and individual decision-making, Conversely, we have under-estimated the extent to which our responses to the world are collectively driven.

What the internet has done has been to expose this mistake.

The effects we are seeing in these hyper-reactive identity-based group outrages arise from our collective social brains. Individual rationality is being overwhelmed by the reaction of the group. The internet aggregates us in online spaces where we instantly engage with the immediate reactions of others (think twitter storm, trending etc). This creates a state of group hyper-reactivity.

At the same time, the normal checks which prevent us yelling at a passer-by, or hurling abuse in a discussion, are removed; because we are anonymous, remote, hidden and therefore unaccountable for our actions.

In this environment, the collective social mind is displaying the symptoms of a kind of permanent societal migraine- the neurons are firing off each other, triggering a hyper-amplified response to a minor stimulus. It is a state of neural pain, leading to a reflexive screaming at any touch which inflames it.

There is no single agent causing this inflamed response; it is a collective state of arousal which needs to allow the individual neurons to calm themselves down; to trigger less violently; to have higher thresholds for reaction.

How can we work towards this?

One route is avoidance. I think we have reached the point where engagement with some aspects of social media is toxic. I have come off much social media because it mainly dysregulates my ability to understand and think rather than helping it.

A second is memory. We should remember what it is like to NOT be hyper-aroused. We don’t have to treat each other this way. We can re-learn how to disagree and differ without demonising.

Social media locks people in an eternal present where nothing but the ‘now’ matters. We need a long narrative to shape our social values. Twitter and Instagram are not it.


Oxford Literary Festival

Educating the Human Mind in a Robotic Age

April 1st 2019, Oxford

We are delighted to announce the launch of a new whole day event Educating the Human Mind in a Robotic Age. The day is designed for educational leaders and policy makers at the 2019 FT Weekend Oxford Literary Festival. The event will address the changes that are required to educate the human mind in a robotic age.

  • The morning session will focus on the effects of social media & digital technologies on the human mind, ability to learn and our mental health.
  • The afternoon session will focus on the unique cognitive capabilities required by graduates to succeed in an economy of machine learning and AI.


• Professor John Bargh, Director of the Automaticity in Cognition, Motivation, and Evaluation Lab at Yale University. John has led global research into cognitive priming for the past three decades. John is uniquely positioned to explain the unconscious impacts of the real and digital environments on the minds of young people.

• Professor Stephen Roberts, Professor of Machine Learning in Information Engineering at the University of Oxford. Stephen has pioneered the development of intelligent algorithms to analyse big datasets. Stephen will clarify both the power and limits of machine learning, identifying the uniquely human cognitive capacities which will remain critical to educate in a robotic age.

• UNESCO ICT in Education sharing global perspectives on technology in education.

• The day will be hosted by Dr Simon Walker, Co-founder of STEER. Simon has led STEER’s pioneering work in reducing mental health risks, signposting learning-to-learn skills and improving employability in students across more than 100 schools.


  • Data from an ongoing study of the development of adolescent social cognition between ages of 8-18 involving 30,000 students.
  • An extended panel interview and Q&A with keynote speakers.


Event places are limited to 100 and are available to headteachers, deputies and policy makers in educational trusts & UK government on a first come-first-served basis.

To be be sent an early-notice of the booking site opening date in December, please email