We’ve seen everyone from political candidates to movie stars lose their temper from time to time. And while they may suffer some temporary condemnation, depending on the situation, most manage to escape with their reputation intact. But based on new research on anger expression, it would appear that angry women are less likely to emerge unscathed than their male counterparts.
All of us, of course, are subject to evaluation by other people when we lose our temper. You’ve undoubtedly seen angry customers lose it when things don’t go their way. What are your impressions of those irate shoppers? If you’ve been at the receiving end of one of these diatribes, how do you react?
Arguments with your romantic partner, friends, or colleagues can also take an angry turn when disagreements get severe enough. You want to convince your partner to spend the weekend with your favorite relatives, but your other half just wants to have some alone time with you. It makes you angry to think that you’ll miss out on family fun because of what you think is your partner’s selfishness.
Political candidates make their living involved in nothing but arguments, whether on the floor of their legislature or in a televised debate. Emotions can get heated. Most recently, we saw Hillary Clinton defend decisions made after the Benghazi attack as she testified for hours in front of a congressional hearing. She never once expressed anger and even made a few jokes. Donald Trump, on the other hand, regularly goes on angry offensives against opponents and the media. Though it’s not always appreciated, many of his followers say, “Bring it on.”
In a study that won several prizes, Arizona State University psychologist Jessica Salerno, with University of Chicago-Illinois psychologist Liana Peter-Hagene (2015), investigated what happens when women and men become angry during jury deliberations. In these situations, jurors often find themselves needing to sway the opinions of others. The stakes are high: The jury’s decision will decide the fate of another human being, and if they get it wrong, an innocent man or woman may be sentenced, or a guilty party go scot-free. Emotions run high and speeches can be very passionate.
If women and men are perceived differently when they express their anger in impassioned speeches, then their influence on fellow jurors should reflect these impressions. If you’re taken seriously when you get angry, you may persuade others to change their mind; if you’re viewed as a lightweight, you’ll be ignored.
To create a scenario that would reproduce what juries do in a controlled experimental setting, Salerno and Peter-Hagene recruited an ethnically diverse sample of 210 undergraduates (about two-thirds of them female) to participate in a computer simulation of the deliberation process. Participants read transcripts from an actual murder trial, saw photographs of the crime scene, and viewed several other photos that weren’t from the trial but gave the scenario greater credibility. The evidence was sufficiently ambiguous to lead participants in a prior study to vote for conviction only 62% of the time; in the present study, 43% of participants arrived at a guilty verdict.
After deciding on their verdict, participants encountered the simulated jury deliberation. They read scripts from other jurors in which one “holdout” refused to go along with the majority opinion. The holdout was identified by name as either a male or a female, and their arguments contained anger (“Seriously, this just makes me angry”), fear (“It scares me to think about how…”), or no emotion at all.
The fear condition was important because the researchers needed to control for the expression of any emotion. If fear and anger produced the same reaction, then one could argue that the effects were due to emotional arousal rather than the specific effects of anger.
Salerno and Peter-Hagene measured the influence on jurors of being exposed to these conditions by having them rate the confidence they had in their initial verdict both before and after reading the scripts from the holdouts. The key question would be whether the participants became less confident in their verdict after reading what the holdout had to say.
The team's findings presented clear evidence that men and women have differing influence when they express opinions in an angry manner. Participants were more likely to doubt their initial judgments after hearing what an angry male holdout had to say, but were more confident in their own judgments after reading the angry woman’s arguments. Everything in the two conditions was the same—except the holdout’s gender.
As Salerno and Peter-Hegene observed (p. 9), “Expressing anger created a gender gap in influence that did not exist before the holdout started expressing anger or when the holdouts expressed fear or no emotion.” This effect was specific to anger, not fear. Further analyses revealed the reason for this gender gap: Participants regarded an angry woman as more emotional, which made them more confident in their own opinion.
Credibility played an interesting role in this process: Both the credibility and the emotionality of female holdouts influenced how much confidence participants had in their own original verdict. However, when the female holdout expressed anger, credibility no longer played a predictive role. It’s as if the participants discounted an angry woman entirely and instead became more confident in their initial verdict. For men, on the other hand, expressing anger made them seem more credible, which, in turn, led participants to become less confident in their own verdict.
These findings have troubling implications about how seriously women are taken compared to men when they behave in the exact same way. As the authors note:
“Our results lend scientific support to a frequent claim voiced by women, sometimes dismissed as paranoia: that people would have listened to her impassioned argument, had she been a man” (p. 11).
The Hillarys of the world may feel the need to keep stifling their anger when people ask annoying questions, while the Donalds can let their rants go unchecked. And the ordinary woman who wishes to be heard may have to suppress her passion, no matter how strongly she feels about her point of view.
Research such as the ASU study can help shed light on the complex ways our biases influence the way we perceive men and women. We may hope that one day this research will allow people, regardless of gender, to allow us to achieve fulfillment by expressing our true passions.
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Salerno, J. M., & Peter-Hagene, L. C. (2015). One Angry Woman: Anger Expression Increases Influence for Men, but Decreases Influence for Women, During Group Deliberation. Law And Human Behavior, doi:10.1037/lhb0000147
Copyright Susan Krauss Whitbourne 2015