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.’
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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