Gender Norms for Emotional Expression

Anger and the perceived credibility of Brett Kavanaugh

Posted Sep 30, 2018

On Thursday and Friday, the United States Senate Committee on the Judiciary met to decide whether Donald Trump's nominee for Supreme Court justice, Judge Brett Kavanaugh, should be pushed forward for the position. During hearings held on Thursday, senators, through an intermediary, interviewed Christine Blasey Ford, who has accused Brett Kavanaugh of sexual assault when they were both teenagers. Senators also directly asked Kavanaugh about Ford's accusations of sexual misconduct and about others that have been levied against him recently. The  two witnesses displayed markedly different sets of emotions.

Research has asked men and women what emotions are socially acceptable for them to express.  This work shows that most emotions are more socially acceptable for women to express than men (e.g., sadness, anxiety), but there is a key exception: anger. In terms of perceived ability to lead—of obvious importance to Kavanaugh at the moment—there is evidence that men's credibility is not affected by expressions of anger, but the same emotion lowers the credibility ratings of women.

It was quite clear from Kavanaugh's testimony that he was quite angry. If he made efforts to hide his anger (which he didn't appear to do), they were not successful. Many commentators have cited his anger and outrage as evidence of his innocence. Now, putting aside how dubious that claim is (wouldn't you be incredibly angry if you did something immoral and it became public right when you were about to get the job you've always wanted? What would that have to do with your innocence or guilt?), it is interesting that Kavanaugh's anger did not reduce his credibility in many people's minds. Research on gender and emotion predicts that that would be the case.

Looking at Ford's testimony, she didn't appear to show any outward signs of anger at all. But what if she had? What if she had interrupted people consistently, been angry and defiant, and more? In short she would've been perceived—based on research—much more negatively than Kavanaugh was for expressing anger. Anger is an emotion reserved in the public sphere for males, though research shows men and women report feeling the same levels of anger.

A woman who acts in anger is seen as far less competent than a man who does so. Such a fact leaves women in a bind; if they are passive, they will not be heard. If they are too angry, they will not be believed. Men, by and large, do not face the same bind.

In short, Kavanaugh seems to have benefited in most people's eyes by being angry and combative. While few observers have noted that his anger displays indicate that he is too unstable for sitting on the Supreme Court, many others believe he gave compelling testimony. Had Ford acted the way he did, far fewer people would have taken her as seriously as they did Kavanaugh. The claims that she is a confused victim would've probably been even stronger.


Selected references:

Lewis, K. M. (2000). When leaders display emotion: How followers respond to negative emotional expression of male and female leaders. Journal of Organizational Behavior: The International Journal of Industrial, Occupational and Organizational Psychology and Behavior, 21(2), 221-234.

Michniewicz, K. S., Bosson, J. K., Lenes, J. G., & Chen, J. I. (2016). Gender-atypical mental illness as male gender threat. American Journal of Men's Health, 10(4), 306-317.

Simon, R. W., & Nath, L. E. (2004). Gender and emotion in the United States: Do men and women differ in self-reports of feelings and expressive behavior?. American Journal of Sociology, 109(5), 1137-1176.