The Outrage Heuristic

8 Pages Posted: 17 Apr 2024

See all articles by Cass R. Sunstein

Cass R. Sunstein

Harvard Law School; Harvard University - Harvard Kennedy School (HKS)

Date Written: April 6, 2024


Many moral judgments are rooted in the outrage heuristic. In making such judgments about certain personal injury cases, people’s judgments are both predictable and widely shared. With respect to outrage (on a bounded scale of 1 to 6) and punitive intent (also on a bounded scale of 1 to 6), the judgments of one group of six people, or twelve people, nicely predict the judgements of other groups of six people, or twelve people. Moreover, outrage judgments are highly predictive of punitive intentions. Because of their use of the outrage heuristic, people are intuitive retributivists. People care about deterrence, but they do not think in terms of optimal deterrence. Because outrage is category-specific, those who use the outrage heuristic are likely to produce patterns that they would themselves reject, if only they were to see them. Because people are intuitive retributivists, they reject some of the most common and central understandings in economic and utilitarian theory. To the extent that a system of civil penalties or criminal justice depends on the moral psychology of ordinary people, it is likely to operate on the basis of the outrage heuristic, and will, from the utilitarian point of view, end up making serious and systematic errors.

Keywords: Outrage, outrage heuristic, punitive damages, punishment, civil penalties, group polarization

JEL Classification: D1, D85, D11, P36

Suggested Citation

Sunstein, Cass R., The Outrage Heuristic (April 6, 2024). Available at SSRN: or

Cass R. Sunstein (Contact Author)

Harvard Law School ( email )

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Cambridge, MA 02138
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617-496-2291 (Phone)

Harvard University - Harvard Kennedy School (HKS) ( email )

79 John F. Kennedy Street
Cambridge, MA 02138
United States

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