The next time you are plagued with indecision and need a clear way out, it might help to get angry, according to a surprising new study.
Despite its reputation as an impetus to rash behavior, anger actually seems to help people make better choices — even aiding those who are usually very poor at thinking rationally. This could be because angry people base their decisions on the cues that "really matter" rather than things that can be called irrelevant or a distraction.
Previous research has shown that anger biases people’s thinking — turning them into bigger risk-takers and making them less trusting and more prejudiced, for instance.
But little has been done to study how, exactly, anger affects a person’s thinking.
So Wesley Moons, a psychologist at the University of California at Santa Barbara, and his colleague Diane Mackie designed three experiments to determine how anger influences thinking — whether it makes people more analytical or careful about their decisions, or whether it leads people to make faster, rasher decisions.
In the first experiment, the researchers induced anger in a group of college students by either asking them to write about a past experience that had made them very angry, or by having their stated hopes and dreams harshly criticized by another participant. In a second group of students, anger was not induced.
The researchers later checked to be sure that the subjects were as riled up as they were supposed to be.
The two groups were then asked to read either compelling or weak arguments designed to convince them that college students have good financial habits. The strong argument cited research from numerous scientific studies, whereas the weak argument contained largely unsupported statements. The subjects were asked to logically evaluate the strength of the arguments they read and indicate how convinced they were by them.
The researchers repeated the experiment with a second group of students, this time giving the subjects an additional piece of information: who had made the arguments. Some students were told that the argument was made by an organization with relevant expertise in financial matters; others were told that the argument was made by a medical organization whose expertise was irrelevant to the financial topic being considered.
Focus on what matters most
In both studies, the researchers found that the angry subjects were better at discriminating between strong and weak arguments and were more convinced by the stronger arguments. Those who were not made to feel angry tended to be equally convinced by both arguments, indicating that they were not as analytical in their assessments.
The angry students were also better at weighing the arguments appropriately depending on which organization had made them.
The researchers repeated the experiment a third time using a different argument — one that supported the implementation of a university-wide requirement for graduating seniors to take comprehensive exams. This time, they tested only those subjects who were the least analytical, or in other words, those who were the least likely to make logical decisions. This way, the researchers would be able to see whether anger also makes typically non-analytical thinkers more analytical.
Once again, they found that the angry subjects were better able to discriminate between strong and weak arguments than the ones who were not angry — suggesting that anger can transform even those people who are, by disposition, not very analytical into more careful thinkers.
Their findings, detailed in this month’s issue of the Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin, suggest that anger helps people focus on the cues that matter most to making a rational decision and ignore cues that are irrelevant to the task of decision-making.
This could be because anger is designed to motivate people to take action — and that it actually helps people to take the right action, the authors wrote.