The Psychology of Cancel Culture
Wed, April 21, 2021

The Psychology of Cancel Culture


By now, “cancel culture” has already been ingrained in our daily lives. On Twitter, many of us might have noticed tons of celebrities, influencers, politicians, or other public figures being canceled because of their behaviors or statements they made. For years, it’s a topic that’s been heavily debated—whether or not this phenomenon actually helps or just isolates people.

The phenomenon has gained such a wide reach that Macquarie Dictionary declared “cancel culture” as the Word of the Year in 2019. In 2019 alone, many celebrities faced being canceled for various reasons. Comedians like Kevin Hart and Shane Gillis, for instance, faced public backlash after social media users found homophobic and racist jokes they have made in the past. While this culture has only emerged in recent years, the idea of canceling someone goes back several years. 

According to Vox, a liberal-leaning American news and opinion website owned by Vox Media, the first reference to canceling possibly comes from the 1991 film “New Jack City.” In one scene, a gangster named Nino Brown—played by actor Wesley Snipes—dumps her girlfriend by saying: “Cancel that b*tch. I’ll buy another one.” Lil Wayne referenced that line in 2010 in his song “I’m Single.”

The idea of canceling someone got its big boost after a cast member of VH1’s reality show “Love and Hip-Hop: New York,” Cisco Rosado, told his love interest Diamond Strawberry during a fight, “you’re canceled,” back in 2014. Since then, the idea of canceling has been used as a reaction to someone doing something you disapproved of—either jokingly or seriously. Little did we know that this idea would become a polarizing culture one day.

What Does it Mean to Cancel Someone?

The word ‘cancel’ has gained new meaning in the past few years. It has the power to put someone in a bad light after expressing an objectionable opinion or “conducting themselves in a way that is unacceptable.” Cancel culture mainly aims to hold people accountable by calling attention to problematic behavior. While this has good intentions, it has gradually become a way to boycott celebrities who expressed problematic views.

People who have been canceled means they were boycotted by a large number of people, sometimes leading to massive declines in the person’s fanbase and career. Experts say that cancel culture continues to be used nowadays because it effectively reduces the social status of people who have problematic views or opinions. This means they can be held accountable or punished for the things they did wrong.

Cancel culture can be explained by social identity theory. This theory suggests that people’s sense of identity is shaped by the social groups they belong to. In the digital world, social identities are at our fingertips. Most of the time, we go with people who have the same hobbies and interests like us. A celebrity, for instance, expresses their support for gender equality and women empowerment. And since you identify yourself as a feminist, you’d likely support them.

All goes well if that same celebrity shares the same values with you. But what happens when they suddenly don’t? Experts say that this would create an internal dissonance. This could be explained by the cognitive dissonance theory, which stipulates that we have an innate human drive for consistency. Since humans aren’t comfortable with this inconsistency, they must decide whether to sticking with the celebrity and changing their values or sticking with their values and changing their allegiance with the individual. Most of us would choose the latter—a decision that drives cancel culture. 

And since cancel culture produces fast rewards, many people support it. According to Psychology Today, an online site that features the latest from the world of psychology: from behavioral research to practical guidance on relationships, mental health and addiction, most people favor obtaining immediate rewards over avoiding the more remote possibility of future suffering.



Has Cancel Culture Gone Too Far?

Many people still argue whether or not cancel culture is a good ‘judgment’ of people who have made mistakes or expressed problematic views. Others complain that it’s unfair. Fellow comedian Billy Eichner, for instance, came to Hart's defense, saying people sometimes rush to judgment. Eichner said he doesn't like the culture of bringing up past tweets and using them against someone.

"I'm not into people being permanently 'canceled' over something like this. To me, 'cancellation' is childish. I'm into a conversation, not a cancellation. I'm into owning up to past mistakes, acknowledging blindspots and hurtful remarks, talking through it, discussing it, learning, moving past it, and making progress together,” Eichner said.

For those who’ve been heavily affected by cancel culture, they say that it is denying them the opportunity to learn and grow. According to Time, an American weekly news magazine and news website, even former US President Barack Obama expressed concern about the way people are called out on social media. “This idea of purity and you’re never compromised and you’re always politically woke and all that stuff, you should get over that quickly,” he said at a summit.



Taylor Swift, who has experienced tons of ‘cancellations’ before, said that the entire experience felt isolating. “I don’t think there are that many people who can actually understand what it’s like to have millions of people hate you very loudly. When you say someone is canceled, it’s not a TV show. It’s a human being. You’re sending mass amounts of messaging to this person to either shut up, disappear, or it could also be perceived as, kill yourself,” she said.

Now, a lot of people, especially celebrities and influencers, fear that they could be subjected to this kind of judgment someday. While holding someone accountable for their mistakes is important, people should also give them an opportunity to learn from them and grow. Because that’s what cancel culture should be all about: changing problematic views that can harm people, especially the minority.

"Cancel culture has really become a sort of a source of fear for many Americans where we live in a culture that you are somehow afraid that if you say the wrong thing that your life could be changed forever. To me, it's vital that we humanize each other. We humanize the consequences of some of these impulses not just in terms of who hears the expression but who is losing a livelihood as a result,” Andrew Yang, a former US presidential candidate, said.