We have completed maintenance on DiscoverMagazine.com and action may be required on your account. Learn More

The Psychology of Cancel Culture

Understand the psychology of cancel culture, how effective it is and what it does to your brain.

By Sara Novak
May 3, 2023 6:00 PM
Angry cancel culture mob
(Credit:Zenza Flarini/Shutterstock)


Sign up for our email newsletter for the latest science news

Cancel culture is largely a product of social media because it allows huge numbers of people to come together to voice their dislike or disapproval of certain people.

By “canceling” people, you’re taking away their voice, business and platform. In a sense, “you’re putting out the fuel of their fire,” especially in the public eye, says psychologist Audrey Tang.

Cancel Culture

It’s not that cancel culture didn’t exist before social media — series and sitcoms could be canceled as viewership went down. But in the era of social media, it can be propagated much quicker if we decide we no longer want to hear from certain public figures, says Tang, author of the book The Leader’s Guide to Resilience. “It’s much more immediate than it would have been before,” she says.

Is Cancel Culture Effective?

Yes, it works really well. Too well, according to Tang.

When people decide they no longer want to hear from a celebrity or public figure because of something they said or did, there’s enough steam behind it as a result of social media to impact media executives. While in the past, television shows were primarily driven by ratings; now social media is much more impactful.

Tang points to recent cancel culture examples like Amber Heard. After the public turned against her and “canceled” her, it became unlikely that media executives would hire her because they were nervous about public opinion. “It just becomes too big of a risk,” she says. 

Read More: Social Media Is Not to Blame for Dwindling Face-to-Face Communication

The Negative Effects of Cancel Culture

Tang says that, especially at universities, cancel culture can be a challenge to free speech. For example, when universities invite certain public figures to speak and then students walk out of their talks, it allows less room for debate. If you don’t listen to opposing views, she says, it takes away from our learning and our ability to question. “We don’t learn how to challenge and stand up to them,” says Tang.

We also run the risk of living in an echo chamber because if we’re never challenged, we never grow. As a result, cancel culture cuts out the middle road, and it’s in the middle where we’re best at solving problems.

“I’m not saying that we have to condone objectionable views at all, but if we’re unwilling to think deeply about critical arguments, then we’re cutting ourselves off from a great amount of knowledge,” Tang says. 

Read More: Collective Behavior and Why Some Crowds Get Out of Control

What Does Cancel Culture Mean for Your Brain?

Cancel culture also teaches children and teens the easy way out. It’s easier to push mute or turn off those whom you disagree with, but the easy way out isn’t always the most effective because we’re not engaging in complex thinking. 

It’s also worth remembering, says Tang, that the prefrontal cortex, the part of the brain engaged in complex thinking, doesn’t fully develop until the age of 25. “I would be loath to judge a teen for engaging in this sort of behavior because their brains aren’t yet fully formed,” she says.

Tang also contends that humans are “cognitive misers,” which means that when given the chance, our brains would rather solve problems using less effort because we can’t manage too much information at once. It’s a problem that becomes much worse in the age of social media when overwhelming amounts of information are flying at us from all directions.

“It’s not a great way of dealing with problems, but cancel culture may be a filter that people use as a survival mechanism,” says Tang.

Read More: Why Are Emotions Contagious?

Why We Are Drawn To Cancel Culture

It makes sense that our brains are drawn to cancel culture, but that doesn’t mean that it’s the best way to live in a society in which we all need to at least attempt to get along.

Tang says that it’s worth putting in the time and energy to learn broadly about opposing views. She also contends that you should gently call people out if they discriminate. Simply saying, “I’m sorry, could you repeat that please?” allows people to rethink what they’ve said. If they repeat it, ask them why they think the way they do.

Ultimately, it’s about broadening our horizons even when it’s uncomfortable. “Listen, learn, read widely and travel,” says Tang. That’s how to be a responsible member of society, rather than just canceling out those with whom you disagree.

Read More: Shame and the Rise of the Social Media Outrage Machine

1 free article left
Want More? Get unlimited access for as low as $1.99/month

Already a subscriber?

Register or Log In

1 free articleSubscribe
Discover Magazine Logo
Want more?

Keep reading for as low as $1.99!


Already a subscriber?

Register or Log In

More From Discover
Recommendations From Our Store
Shop Now
Stay Curious
Our List

Sign up for our weekly science updates.

To The Magazine

Save up to 40% off the cover price when you subscribe to Discover magazine.

Copyright © 2024 Kalmbach Media Co.