- When falsely accused of wrongdoing, people usually feel enraged and express their anger about the unfair treatment.
- A new study suggests people who express their angry feelings openly are often seen as guilty.
- Individuals falsely accused of wrongdoing might be judged more favorably if they can control their emotions and remain calm.
According to DeCelles and colleagues—from the University of Toronto, University of Virginia, Duke University, and Harvard University—a suspect’s angry reaction to being accused is often used as an indicator of the person’s guilt, even though “such anger is an invalid cue of guilt and is instead a valid cue of innocence.”
The authors’ findings, reported in the August issue of Psychological Science, are discussed below.
Six studies of anger, guilt, and innocence
Since the paper reports the results of six different studies, I describe each very briefly:
Study 1 (N = 1,920 MTurk users) examined whether anger is usually seen as evidence of guilt. Participants were first asked to watch clips from the TV show “Judge Faith.” They were then asked to determine whether a defendant was guilty.
The results showed judgments of a suspect’s anger were linked with perceptions of the suspect’s guilt.
In Study 2 (N = 1,782), participants were instructed to read a fabricated story about a person pleading not guilty to armed robbery. The suspect was described as either silent, calm, irritated, or angry. For instance, in the silent condition, he was described as choosing not to testify; in the anger condition, he was portrayed as raising his voice and saying, angrily, “I’m so fucking OUTRAGED that I’m being accused of this crime!”
The results indicated the suspect was seen as guiltier when angry, compared to when calm or even irritated. However, he was also seen as guiltier when silent than angry.
Study 3 (N = 708) tested whether the link between anger and guilt generalizes to situations other than courtrooms. Participants were randomly assigned to read one of two potential scenarios: These involved an individual who may be cheating on his romantic partner, and a grocery clerk who may be stealing money from the register. Participants were randomly assigned to read two different reactions to accusations, with the suspect either calmly or angrily denying responsibility.
Analysis of data showed, in both scenarios, the angry target, compared to the calm target, was seen as guiltier.
The aim of Study 4 (N = 136) was to determine if professionals who regularly judge others’ guilt also assume an angry reaction is a sign of guilt. Nearly 44% of the professionals in the sample were fraud investigators, 11% criminal or police detectives, 4% lawyers, and the rest mostly fraud examiners and auditors. They were instructed to read a scenario involving stolen computer equipment from an accounting firm and three potential suspects—supposed employees at the firm—who reacted with either rage or calmness to the accusations or chose not to speak at all.
The findings once again showed the enraged and silent suspects were perceived as guiltier than the calm suspect.
The next two investigations evaluated whether a suspect’s indignation and fury are related to their actual innocence.
In Study 5 (N = 401), participants were randomly assigned to four conditions: They were instructed to write about a time when they had been rightfully or falsely accused of a trivial or a serious wrongdoing. Illustrative examples of serious wrongdoings were provided (e.g., cheating on one’s husband or wife, academic dishonesty, theft in the workplace). Participants were then asked to recall how they felt and what emotions (anger, hostility, irritability, frustration, calmness, or relaxation) they had displayed at the time.
The results showed that compared to the rightfully accused, those falsely accused of both serious and trivial offenses often felt and showed more anger.
The goal of Study 6 (N = 230) was to observe the effects of accusations in real time. There were two conditions: In the “falsely accused” condition, participants were tasked with an easy job, of capitalizing the first/last letters of a paragraph. In the “rightfully accused” condition, however, the job was more difficult and involved deleting adverbs in a paragraph. After each group’s work was supposedly evaluated carefully, both groups were accused of not having followed the instructions and told they may not receive the bonus payment promised.
Analysis of data indicated that being falsely accused, compared to rightfully accused, was linked with greater feelings of injustice and anger.
Anger, innocence, and false accusations
Let us consider the main findings:
- People tend to believe angry suspects are guiltier than calm suspects.
- Being falsely (vs. rightfully) accused of wrongdoing is associated with more anger.
These findings suggest people are not good at lie detection and might misread shows of anger and indignation as cues of guilt.
Here’s the takeaway: It is normal to feel indignant at the injustice of being falsely accused of dishonest or illegal behavior; so it is important to acknowledge and accept one’s angry feelings. However, expressing one’s outrage (e.g., shouting or swearing) may be unhelpful, even interpreted as a sign of guilt. What might be more beneficial is controlling one’s expression of anger, asking for an opportunity to defend one’s innocence, and calmly explaining, using logic and evidence, why the accusation is baseless.