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Why do People Engage in Cancel Culture? The Psychology Behind It

Have you ever scrolled through social media and seen hundreds of posts calling out a person or group? Shaming them for their actions? Demanding that they repent for their behavior and encouraging others to stop supporting them? Then you have just witnessed cancel culture.

Cancel culture happens when people stop supporting individuals or groups who have behaved in an unacceptable or problematic way. They may do so by discontinuing their support for them or boycotting their brand (Mueller, 2021).

Nowadays, cancel culture has become way more prominent thanks to social media. People can now share their outrage and disappointment to everyone and influence them to participate. With the masses on board, the reputations of prominent people can take bigger blows. But what motivates people to engage in cancel culture?

“You’ve Done Something Wrong”

Brands and influencers often get cancelled for doing something offensive or committing grave transgressions. Some examples of these are discriminatory acts against minorities, bullying, abuse, sexism, racism, homophobia, and supporting violence (Mueller, 2021). These actions may go against social media users’ values and beliefs, especially regarding what is moral. The more the user’s beliefs and values oppose those of the public figure’s, the more likely they would be to participate in cancel culture.

However, some may not be as inclined to cancel. Before the transgressions came to light, users may have strongly identified with the public figure because of how congruent their values and beliefs were. As such, rather than canceling them, users may be biased towards information against them, and may even try to overlook or justify their behavior (Gvozden & Zetterlind, 2023).

“You Need to Apologize”

If you were hurt by someone close to you, it’s natural for you to want an apology and for them to make it up to you. The same can be said in cancel culture. The desire for an apology is a predominant motivator for engaging in cancel culture. The stronger the desire, the more involved the person will be (Mueller, 2021).

The strength of this desire can be influenced by political beliefs. For example, those that hold a more conservative political identity will be less likely to demand an apology. Even if they would prefer an apology, they may not actively seek it out via cancel culture. On the other hand, those that have a more liberal identity will want an apology more and may even engage in other controversial issues (Mueller, 2021).

“Others are Against You”

Cancel culture can sometimes be a bandwagon. People will often stick with those they identify with, or those they share values and beliefs with. Because people want to be accepted by their peers, whether in real life or online, they may also engage in cancel culture if their peers are doing so even if they personally don’t want to actively engage with it (Gvozden & Zetterlind, 2023). Their personal beliefs and intentions regarding the public figure or canceling in general may also be influenced by those they hang out with.

Is Cancel Culture Always the Call?

One factor influencing cancel culture participation is subjective norms (Gvozden & Zetterlind, 2023). Yes, people would want to cancel those who have done something offensive, but what counts as “offensive” can be subjective. Some may opt to do prior research and see the full picture before deciding if the person deserves cancelation (Mueller, 2021). However, others may decide to cancel someone solely based on their own beliefs. What is extremely offensive to them may not be offensive to others. They may view simple mistakes as grave sins, and they may not view the public figure as redeemable. As such, cancel culture may not always be the right move.

The Impact of Social Media in Cancel Culture

Social media has given people a platform to come together and have their voices heard. It’s because of social media that cancel culture has become more effective with regular people now being able to influence those with more power than them. Cancel culture can have its benefits such as being able to get justice, enact positive change, and promote democracy.

However, it can also be just as bad, if not harmful. Those who have been cancelled may become depressed, more anxious, and lonelier, as well as have low self-esteem and self-confidence (Infante et al., 2023; Ramsey-Soroghaye et al., 2023). People may lose jobs and have no opportunities to redeem themselves. If the transgressor is a company or brand, then employees may lose livelihoods or be harassed even if they don’t share the company’s beliefs. It becomes worse when the target has been wrongfully cancelled. The average person may also become more anxious; they may be more cautious with what they say or be scared to say anything at all in fear of getting bashed online. While cancel culture can have its benefits, people should be careful when participating in cancel culture as it can have significant impacts on those involved.

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Gvozden, N., & Zetterlind, L. (2023). The complexity of cancel culture: Unveiling the personal and social drivers that influences the decision to cancel [Master’s thesis, Umeå University]. Diva Portal.

Infante, M. A., Aguilar, A. M. P., Cruz, R., Fernandez, A. M., Rivera, C. E., & Tapat, M. R. R. (2023). Cancel culture and social media anxiety among selected young adults: A phenomenological study [Bachelor’s thesis, San Mateo Municipal College]. ResearchGate.

Mueller, T. S. (2021). Blame, then shame? Psychological predictors in cancel culture behavior. The Social Science Journal.

Ramsey-Soroghaye, B., Onalu, C., & Anyaegbu, P. (2023). Perceived impact of cancel culture and the mental health challenges associated with the aftermath: A discourse for social workers in Nigeria. Journal of Social Service Research, 49(5), 595-606.

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