05 November 2021

Innocent Anger

The accountant reviewing your business receipts advises you that $10,000 seems to be missing. You meet with your two partners one at a time and ask about the discrepancy. One responds calmly, “I’ve no idea.” The other shouts angrily, “Why are you blaming me?” Do you think one of your partners might know something? 

Welcome back. Researchers affiliated with Toronto, Virginia, Duke and Harvard universities conducted six tests to document how angry responses are typically perceived as evidence of guilt. What they found is that people tend to be even angrier when falsely accused.

Anger-Perceived as Guilt
Four tests enlisted large numbers of varied race and gender participants through, for example, Amazon MTurk (e.g., 1,920). In each test, the participants rated guilt on a scale from 1 (extremely unlikely) to 7 (extremely likely) as well as related factors.

Two of the four tests used courtroom scenarios. One had participants view an accused person pleading his or her case from the television show “Judge Faith.” The second had participants read about a fictitious accused person pleading either calmly, irritated, angrily or silently (by not testifying) to charges of armed robbery. 

Judge Faith from Season 1, Episode 74 “Get Out”, 27June2016 (www.youtube.com/watch?v=LVpkMwmPq9M).
The third test had participants read one of two scenarios: a person thinks her partner may be cheating on her, or a grocery store manager thinks an employee may be responsible for a $500 loss. In both scenarios, the suspect, when confronted, either calmly denies responsibility or raises his voice and angrily denies responsibility.

The fourth test recruited professionals, such as fraud investigators, who routinely form judgments of others’ guilt. The test had the professionals read that they were helping with an incident in which computing equipment was stolen from a storage room, accessible by only three employees. When accused of wrongdoing, one employee curses and responds angrily, the second responds calmly, and the third sits silently, saying nothing.

In the four tests, the angry suspect was perceived to be guiltier than the calm or irritated suspect. The silent suspect was also perceived guiltier than the calm suspect, presumably because people distrust those perceived to be withholding information.

Anger Predicts Innocence
The final two tests examined anger as a predictor of innocence, not guilt.

In the fifth test, some 400 varied race and gender participants wrote about a time they were either correctly or falsely accused of a serious or trivial wrongdoing. They included if they denied the accusation and how they felt and displayed anger or calmness from 1 (very slightly or not at all) to 5 (extremely).

Across a variety of trivial and serious recalled accusations, the participants reported feeling and displaying more anger when they were falsely accused.

Anger is stronger among the innocent than the guilty whether trivial or serious accusations; error bars represent +/- 1 standard error around the mean (from journals.sagepub.com/doi/10.1177/0956797621994770).
In the sixth and final test, 230 varied race and gender participants were instructed to copy and paste a paragraph into a textbox. They were randomly tasked to either identify and delete adverbs from the paragraph (“difficult task”) or capitalize the first and last letter of the paragraph (“easy task”).

After submitting their work, all participants were sent a message accusing them of not paying attention and not following instructions. They were then asked to rate the extent to which they felt the assessment was fair and the anger or calm they felt.

As expected, participants were more likely to report feeling falsely accused and angry on the easy task, which most completed correctly, than on the difficult task.

Wrap Up
Across formal and informal settings, serious and trivial accusations, expressed and experienced anger, as well as the strength of anger, observers believed angry suspects were guiltier. Yet people were angrier when they were falsely versus accurately accused.  

As the researchers note, observers are not accurate lie detectors; they rely on emotional cues from suspects in forming judgments. Not only is anger an invalid cue of guilt, it may well be a valid cue of innocence.

If falsely accused, stay calm but not quiet. And thanks for stopping by.

Study of anger and innocence in Psychological Science journal: journals.sagepub.com/doi/10.1177/0956797621994770
Article on study on EurekAlert! website: www.eurekalert.org/news-releases/929829

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