Does anger lead to better decision making?

Emotion Image Gallery Image courtesy Dreamstime In some cases, angry people may be even more analytical than their calmer brethren.

Ben Franklin told us it's a companion to folly and John Dryden said that it "dwells in the bosom of fools." But the Sith tell us to give into it and Rage Against the Machine say it's a gift, and we like "Star Wars" and rock music. So how should we feel about anger?

A new study performed by researchers at the University of California, Santa Barbara, lends new credence to the theory that there are some positive aspects to anger, particularly as it relates to decision making. The results of the study, which was led by professors Wesley Moons and Diane Mackie, were published in "Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin." In the paper, titled "Thinking Straight While Seeing Red: The Influence of Anger on Information Processing," Dr. Moons and Dr. Mackie explain that past studies have been interpreted to show angry people as less analytical and more reliant on stereotypes. However, the researchers felt that some of these studies were inconclusive and others may point to little discussed, positive aspects of anger in decision making.


To investigate their claim, Dr. Moons and Dr. Mackie conducted three experiments that tested the effects of anger on analytic reasoning. The subjects of the tests were undergraduates at the University of California at Santa Barbara. In the first test, the subjects were divided into two groups, one that would become angry and one that would remain "neutral." Among the former group, some of the students got angry by writing about a past experience that had made them angry; others were driven to anger by having their "life goals.. harshly criticized by a fellow participant" [Source: Sage Publications]. After checking to make sure that some of the students were sufficiently incensed, both groups were asked to distinguish between weak and strong arguments in essays that proposed that college students have good financial habits. Strong arguments cited past studies and research on the topic; weak arguments made declarative statements without providing evidence.

Next, we'll see what resulted when Dr. Moons and Dr. Mackie ran a second group of experiments.



Anger Experiments

T­he experiment was run again, but this time students were told who had written the arguments, either a company experienced with financial concerns or a medical organization. The intention was that those who were told that the finance company authored a statement would be biased towards favoring that statement -- no matter its quality. On the other hand, a statement authored by a medical organization would seem less credible.

In the end, the results of both tests showed that angry students were more successful than the control group of neutral students at picking out the stronger arguments.


The tests seemed to support the researchers' assertions, but they decided to be more rigorous. In the third and final test, students completed a written assessment to determine their analytical ability. Those who were deemed less analytically inclined were divided from those who appeared more analytical. The less analytical subjects were presented with arguments about introducing mandatory comprehensive exams for graduating college students, an idea that was believed to be quite unpopular. Among the less analytical subjects, the angry ones were better at distinguishing strong from weak arguments. The neutral subjects didn't show any increase in analytic ability.

We'll examine the conclusions drawn by Dr. Moons and Dr. Mackie about anger and decision making in the next section.


Anger and Analytics: Conclusions

Photo courtesy Forgiss/Dreamstime If this guy got a little mad, would he figure out the answer to what’s puzzling him?

Judging from these tests, it appears that when distinguishing between various arguments, angry people disregard information that's irrelevant to the quality of the argument, such as its source. Neutral subjects, however, give undue preference to those clues. In their report, Dr. Moons and Dr. Mackie wrote that "angry people were routinely sensitive to variations in argument quality" [Source: Sage Publications]. In other words, they pay attention to heuristics or cues that really matter -- argument quality, facts provided, et cetera. Contrary to common belief, anger can now be seen as a "motivator" of analytical thinking, rather than a barrier [Source: Sage Publications].

The UCSB study shows that anger can help boost analytic thinking as angry subjects more often ignore less useful information. But why? If you think about it, there is an underlying logic. Anger is an emotion that demands a response. Sometimes that response can be harmful or violent. But sometimes it can be constructive -- in this case, a desire to find a solution by focusing on thinking analytically. And as we saw in the third test, even people who weren't analytically inclined saw a boost in their reasoning ability when they got a little peeved. The study also points out that angry people often have a desire to see someone punished, a feeling which could motivate them to rank one argument above another [Source: Sage Publications].



Other studies, some of which are cited in the Moons-Mackie study, have also found positive benefits to anger. Dr. Jennifer Lerner of Carnegie-Mellon University has studied the effects of anger extensively. She has found that responding to a stressful situation with a reasonable amount of anger can make people feel more in control and more positive. (It's worth noting that in their study, Dr. Moons and Dr. Mackie didn't see that high level of certainty among subjects.) Dr. Carol Tavris, a psychologist and author of a book called "Anger: The Misunderstood Emotion," says that anger certainly has a positive role to play in society. She cites the women's suffrage movement as an example [Source: APA].

In everyday life, we often hear people saying how small eruptions of anger, or expressing frustration when it occurs, is more healthy than bottling it up until it boils over dramatically. Expressing anger can lead to healthy discussions, moments of insight and understanding. It's also usually a better response than one of the alternatives -- fear.

For more information about anger, the brain and related topics, check out the links on the next page.


Lots More Information

Related HowStuffWorks Articles

More Great Links

  • "Anger Quotes." World of Quotes.
  • "Quotations about Anger." The Quote Garden.
  • DeAngelis, Tori. "When anger's a plus." Monitor on Psychology. APA Online. Mar. 3, 2003.
  • Lloyd, Robin. "Anger is Good For You." Live Science. Nov. 3, 2005.
  • Moons, Wesley G. and Mackie, Diane M. "Thinking Straight While Seeing Red: The Influence of Anger on Information Processing." Sage Publications. Apr. 17, 2007.
  • Wenner, Melinda. "Anger Fuels Better Decisions." Live Science. June 11, 2007.