New study finds that cancel culture is driven more by in-group signaling than by a genuine desire for change

The study suggests that engaging in cancel culture is tied to political identity and is more about in-group signaling than about genuine societal progress.

In the ever-evolving discourse surrounding cancel culture, a new study sheds light on the psychological underpinnings that drive people to publicly denounce others on platforms like Twitter and Facebook.

The paper, published on February 9 in the journal Acta Psychologica, suggests that engaging in cancel culture is less about making genuine societal progress and more about in-group signaling.

Self-perception deeply rooted in politics

Conducted by means of an online survey of 459 people, the study looked at the intricate relationship between political identity and the propensity to partake in cancel culture — the act of boycotting or publicly shaming individuals or organizations for perceived moral failings.

The demographic makeup of the respondents was diverse, with an average age of 38, a nearly equal distribution of genders, and a slight majority (51%) identifying as Democrats.

The researchers found a statistically significant connection between the degree to which one’s political beliefs are central to their identity and their likelihood to cancel others.

This correlation ranged from moderate (0.11) for a general tendency towards canceling, to more pronounced (0.21) for specific actions such as public admonishment and joining collective critique.

Social vigilantism and virtue signaling

The study identifies two critical mechanisms at play: social vigilantism and virtue signaling.

Social vigilantism, defined as the urge to enforce one’s moral viewpoints on others, and virtue signaling, or the act of broadcasting one’s moral righteousness, were both significantly linked to cancel culture behaviors.

Social vigilantism was particularly influential in direct actions like public calling out, while virtue signaling correlated more with reactive measures against perceived wrongs.

Stronger reactions to perceived wrongdoings

The research points out that when political identity is a core part of someone’s self-view, they tend to have stronger reactions to wrongdoings (like calling for more severe consequences or sharing critical posts on social media), mainly through virtue signaling.

In other words, reactions to wrongdoings are often more about boosting one’s image or showing off to those who share similar views, rather than actually trying to change the situation.

On the other hand, the act of publicly criticizing or joining others in criticism is driven by social vigilantism, where there’s a felt responsibility to correct what are seen as the incorrect beliefs and actions of others deemed less informed.

This means that when people join others in criticizing someone else, they often use it as a chance to promote their own moral beliefs.

“Political identity centrality,” as the authors put it, “increases the likelihood that individuals will engage in cancelling behavior as they seek to signal their virtue or apply their values to ignorant others.”

  • Title: The association between political identity centrality and cancelling proclivity
  • Authors: Rhiannon M. Mesler, Katharine Howie, Jennifer Chernishenko, Mingnan Nancy Shen, and Jessica Vredenburg
  • Published in: Acta Psychologica, Volume 244, April 2024
  • DOI: https://doi.org/10.1016/j.actpsy.2024.104140
  • Publication date:  9 February 2024