Monday, April 2, 2012

Anger makes the world seem more threatening

It is amazing how your emotions can affect the way the world looks to you.  If you wake up one morning happy, then even a small dose of bad news may be felt as an opportunity rather than a failure.  When you’re sad, that same bit of bad news can lead you to feel as though the world is coming to an end. 

What about anger?  What does that do?

An interesting paper by Jolie Baumann and David DeSteno in the October, 2010 issue of the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology suggests that anger may increase your perception that the world is threatening.

The design of the studies in this paper is straightforward.  In the basic task, you see a picture of a man flashed quickly (for about 3/4 of a second).  The man is either holding a gun that is pointed at you or some non-threatening object (like a wallet of flashlight).  Your job is to press one button if you think he is holding a gun and a second button if you think he is holding some other object. 

Before doing this procedure, people either wrote a brief essay about their daily routine (which did not affect their emotion much), about an event that made them happy (which made them happy), or an event that made them angry (which made them angry). 

The main finding from this study was that when people were angry, they were much more likely to say that a person was carrying a gun when they weren’t than either the happy people or the group that wrote about their routine.  Using a mathematical technique called signal detection analysis, the researchers showed that anger affected the way people made the decision to say that something was a gun.  Basically, angry people needed less evidence that something might be a gun to say that they saw a gun than the people in the other groups.  A second study showed that this effect was specific to anger, and did not occur for people who were made to feel disgusted or sad. 

Why does this happen?

The researchers suggested that anger may influence your belief about how likely it is that things in the world are threatening.  The idea is that if you think the world is more threatening, you might see more threats in your environment than there really are.

They tested this explanation with a clever study.  Again, they had one group who wrote about their daily routine while a second group wrote about something that made them angry.  Then, they told people that they would see a picture flashed really briefly on the screen.  They were told that, even though the image was flashed too quickly to know for sure what they saw, they should say whether they saw a gun or some other object.  In reality, the pixels in the area around the person’s hand were modified so that there was no clear object shown when the picture was flashed.  As a result, this test becomes a measure of how likely it is that people think there is a gun in the pictures.  The people who were angry responded that they saw a gun on more trials of the study than the people who were not angry.

That is, the angry people thought the world was a more threatening place. 

Finally, the last study in this paper suggests that the effect of anger is mostly on people’s snap judgments.  In a final study, people did the same gun detection task.  After they made their first response about whether they saw a gun or an object, they were encouraged to think about it more and to change their mind if they thought their first judgment had been a mistake.  These second guesses were very accurate.

Putting all of this together, anger seems to affect people’s snap judgments by making them feel that the world is more threatening.  Slower and more deliberate judgments are not as strongly affected by being angry.

Unfortunately, when you are angry, you often act on the basis of your initial judgments.  If you are in a situation that is potentially dangerous, then you have no choice but to act on your initial impression.  But if the situation is not a matter of life or death, then these results suggest that you should really slow down and think when you’re angry. 

Many of us have experienced the situation where we are already angry and then a comment by a partner, family member, friend, or coworker sets us off.  We respond more angrily or harshly to this person than we should.  Part of what is happening is that this initial judgment has made the person’s remark feel more threatening than it really was.  In these cases, it is better to slow down and think before responding.