Tuesday, 8 March 2011

How anger can make us more rational

Anger can de-bias our thinking
Imagine you're in a room with four people, one is lip-snarling angry, the others are calm. Who among them would you consider the most likely to think rationally? A surprising new study suggests that in at least one important respect it's actually the angry individual who will be the more rational decision maker. How come? Because they'll be less prone to the confirmation bias - our tendency to seek out information that supports our existing views.

Maia Young and her colleagues had 97 undergrads take part in what they thought were two separate experiments. The first involved them either recalling and writing about a time they'd been exceptionally angry (this was designed to make them angry), or a time they'd been sad, or about mundane events.

Next, all the participants read an introduction to the debate about whether hands-free kits make speaking on a mobile phone while driving any safer. All participants had been chosen because pre-study they believed that they do. The most important part came next, as the participants were presented with one-sentence summaries of eight articles, either in favour, or against, the idea that hands-free kits make driving safer. The participants had to choose five of these articles to read in full.

Which participants tended to choose to read more articles critical of hands-free kits and therefore contrary to their own position? It was the participants who'd earlier been made to feel angry. What's more, when the participants' attitudes were re-tested at the study end, it was the angry participants who'd shifted more from their original position on the debate.

These findings were supported in a follow-up involving 89 adults, with the controversial issue pertaining to who should be the next US president, in what was then the upcoming 2008 election. Once again, participants provoked into feeling angry tended to choose to read articles that ran counter to their original position (be that favouring Obama or McCain). Another detail was that this effect of anger was entirely explained by what the researchers called a 'moving against' tendency, measured by participants' agreement, after the anger induction, with statements like 'I wanted to assault something or someone'.

Young and her team said their results provided an example of anger leading to a cognitive pattern characterised by less bias. 'Although the hypothesis disconfirming behaviour that anger produces may well be an aggressive act, meant to move or fight against the opposition's opinion,' they said, 'its result is to provide those who feel angry with better information.'

What are the real-life implications of this result? The researchers conceded that it's unrealistic to make people angry as a way to improve their decision making. However, they said that in a work meeting, if someone is angry, they might be the one best placed to play the role of devil's advocate on behalf of the group. 'By encouraging angry group members to select information necessary for group discussion,' the researchers explained, 'the group as a whole may get the benefit of being exposed to diverse views and, as a result, achieve a more balanced perspective.'

ResearchBlogging.orgYoung, M., Tiedens, L., Jung, H., and Tsai, M. (2011). Mad enough to see the other side: Anger and the search for disconfirming information. Cognition and Emotion, 25 (1), 10-21 DOI: 10.1080/02699930903534105

Post written by Christian Jarrett (@psych_writer) for the BPS Research Digest.


Anonymous said...

Weird. When I think of conversations I've been in with angry people, they didn't seem very open minded. When I think of times I've been angry, It doesn't seem to me that I've been open-minded. Also, thinking about my past anger doesn't so much make me angry as it makes me regretful. Perhaps what's actually being tested is how open-minded a person becomes after recalling a time when their close-mindedness lead to a painful outcome. If you want to test the hypothesis that anger makes you open-minded, you need a better way of "making people angry". You could try being rude to them.

Christina said...

This makes a lot of sense to me. Pretty much every time I've shifted in my opinion on a major issue involved at least some degree of anger. Not necessarily PISSED OFF GRRR but at least upset. Certainly there've been times when I looked up the opposing argument intending to tear it apart and come out thinking "actually ... they might have a point after all"

Linda Vaught said...

I've always believed in the use of a devil's advocate for association board meetings. Often times though, especially when the devil's advocate is me, I will try to calm the angry person so others aren't uncomfortable. No more. Now I'm going to wait for them to rationalize their feelings and thoughts.

Anonymous said...

The article doesn't show that the subjects changed their minds (ie, became more open-minded). It only shows that they sought out the contrary view. Seeking out contrary views could just as easily be explained as searching for a scapegoat to ridicule. I wish there was more discussion of followup after the subjects sought out the contrary information.

Unknown said...

Anonymous at 5.41pm, I think you missed this bit (4th paragraph):

"What's more, when the participants' attitudes were re-tested at the study end, it was the angry participants who'd shifted more from their original position on the debate."

Anonymous said...

I do not think that the Tea Party, are a case in point.

Tim said...

It would be interesting to see how the opinions shift in those who read dissenting opinion but were not angry.

Or, maybe even more importantly, what happens with the angry people when they're forced to read dissenting opinions rather than given a choice?

Anonymous said...

I agree with the first commenter. I think what's happening here is that they asked these people to remember a time when they were angry and that memory made them reflect more on their actions.

If I remember times I've been angry, it's usually due to some injustice I perceived. If I picture myself as the victim of a past injustice, I'll certainly be more considerate of other victims, or other sides to an argument. If I think someone was unfair to me, then I'll try to change that by viewing something in a more just light.

So it's not really the angry people who are more rational, it seems, but the people who can use compassion.

Anonymous said...

I do wonder what the actual statistics were since the participants were asked to choose only 5 different summaries. For example, if the angry participants had chosen, on the average, a 4:1 proportion, i.e. 4 against, 1 in favor, that must be pretty significant because, assuming a 50/50 split on the viewpoints this means that they've chosen all of the contrary viewpoints, on the average.

Anonymous said...

I think this article can be misleading. It seems to presume but does not show that recalling about a past angry episode necessary means the recaller is presently/persistently angry, which somehow affects his/order present rational judgement. Could it be that he/she having regretted being angry, possibly having lost her cool, recalled the negative consequences, and learned to adopt open rational thinking instead. So anger awakes one to one's current limitation (lack of openness and rationality) which leads one to moderate one's judgement. All of this takes place in one's social and environmental context of course. For example, I would think the results would be different if similar experiments were done among rioters, vice college undergrads.

Rob Keery said...

Sorry this is a bit late - the Cognition & Emotion article that this post refers to is now free to read in full oonline for the enxt few weeks.

Click here to go straight through to the full text.

Steven said...

This helps to explain why I am such a contrarian, because I tend to be a bit more angry and critical than others.

Always nice to see research defending the utility of "negative" emotions.

Great find!

Unknown said...

Anonymous at 3.39 AM - you said the study "seems to presume but does not show that recalling about a past angry episode necessary means the recaller is presently/persistently angry"

Don't forgot that the researchers measured what they called a 'moving against' tendency (via agreement with statements like 'I want to assault someone') and that this measure entirely mediated the effect of the anger condition on participants' subsequent desire to read about opposing viewpoints. This seems to undermine your suggestion that it has to do with regret.

Anonymous said...

This is an illogical conclusion. When we are stressed, angry, etc., we are in our sympathetic nervous system, which disconnects us from our prefrontal cortex or reasoning. Until we are calmer and back in our parasympathetic nervous system we are bouncing around our limbic system, our emotional center. We need the calm and reasoning ability inherent in the parasympathetic system to make good decisions.

Anonymous said...

Am I the only one who read this and then thought "Steve Jobs"?

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