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Anger Reduces Women's Ability to Influence Others

A new study confirms anecdotal evidence that men's anger is respected, while women's can be seen as counterproductive.
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(Photo: Aaron Amat/Shutterstock)

(Photo: Aaron Amat/Shutterstock)

Angry men are strong and forceful, while angry women are often dismissed as overly emotional. That double standard has been alleged for years now, with plenty of anecdotal evidence to back it up.

A newly published study featuring a mock jury not only supports that assertion: It takes it a step further, suggesting women's anger may actually be counterproductive. It finds that, while men who express anger are more likely to influence their peers, the opposite is true for women.

"Our results lend scientific support to a frequent claim voiced by women, sometimes dismissed as paranoia," conclude psychologists Jessica Salerno of Arizona State University and Liana Peter-Hagene of the University of Illinois–Chicago. They suggest the belief "that people would have listened to her impassioned argument, had she been a man" is, in many cases, valid.

"When a female holdout expressed anger, participants became significantly more confident in their own opinion over the course of deliberation."

The study, described in the journal Law and Human Behavior, featured 210 "jury-eligible undergraduates." They began by reading and viewing on a computer screen a 17-minute presentation based on a real case in which a man was tried for murdering his wife. Participants read summaries of the opening and closing statements and eyewitness testimonies. They also viewed photographs of the crime scene and the alleged murder weapon.

To begin the deliberation phase, participants rendered a preliminary vote of guilty or not guilty. Each then exchanged a series of messages, purportedly with peers who were also deciding whether or not to convict.

In fact, these were scripted in advance, and in a very specific way: Four of the fictional jurors agreed with the participant's verdict, and one disagreed. The lone holdout had a user name that was clearly male or female; the other names were gender-neutral.

As deliberations continued, the researchers inserted "clear expressions of anger or fear" into some of the holdout's comments. Anger was expressed, in part, by the holdout typing some words in all caps.

So all participants read essentially the same arguments, but for some, these points were made with anger. For others, they were made in a spirit of fear; for the remainder, they were conveyed in an emotionally neutral tone.

During the course of the discussion, participants periodically expressed the extent to which they felt confident in their initial verdict. Afterwards, they voted once more. (Only seven percent changed their minds.)

"Participants became more confident in their own opinion after learning they were in the majority," the researchers report. "But (they) then started doubting their own opinion significantly after the male holdout expressed anger."

In contrast, "when a female holdout expressed anger, participants became significantly more confident in their own opinion over the course of deliberation."

This dynamic—which held true for both male and female participants—meant that "men were able to exert more social pressure by expressing anger," whereas women actually lost influence when they did the same thing.

This research support the results of a 2008 study that found men gain status, but women lose it, after expressing anger. Men are presumed to be angry for a reason, that study concluded, while women's anger is seen as a reflection of internal characteristics, such as a tendency to get "out of control."

The persistence of such stereotypes is enough to make me angry. But then again, as a male, I can afford to do so.

The researchers argue that these findings have important implications, not only for juries, but also for other examples of group decision-making, such as department-head meetings or government advisory boards.

They even may impact the presidential campaign. Carly Fiorina has clearly decided that an angry approach will take votes from Donald Trump, while Hillary Clinton ponders how to respond to the populist anger of Bernie Sanders.

This study suggests these female candidates may make a more convincing case if they don't try to mimic those maddened males.

Findings is a daily column by Pacific Standard staff writer Tom Jacobs, who scours the psychological-research journals to discover new insights into human behavior, ranging from the origins of our political beliefs to the cultivation of creativity.