Simon M. Laham, Ph.D.

Simon M Laham Ph.D.

The Science of Sin

Anger

The Upside of Anger

Anger opens the mind. Really.

Posted Jun 12, 2012

One might not be tempted to call anger the most open-minded of the deadly sins; it strikes one more as the most pig-headed and self-righteous of the seven. However, recent work by Maia Young of UCLA and her colleagues, casts anger in a much more flattering light.

In one study, Young explored what psychologists call the confirmation bias – the pervasive tendency we all have to search for information that confirms our pre-existing beliefs. Much research shows that when given a choice between reading arguments that firm-up their most cherished beliefs versus those that undermine them, people often opt for the former; this is why Democrats watch The Daily Show and Republicans watch Fox News.

Young was interested in what anger would do to the confirmation bias. Intuition might lead you to speculate that anger would amplify the confirmation bias – guiding the self-righteous, anger-fuelled individual to selectively process belief-consistent information. Young thought that anger might actually have the opposite effect – opening rather than closing the mind.

To test this hypothesis, Young first had participants recall an event that had made them angry; then she had them make a choice between belief-confirming and belief-undermining information. What she found was that anger reversed the conformation bias, making people more likely to seek out disconfirming information. What’s more, she found that angry people were consequently more open-minded – being subsequently more likely to be change their beliefs than controls.

This reversal is likely a product of the confrontational mindset so central to the anger experience. When in the throes of this emotion, one is in an antagonistic, nit-picking frame of mind. It’s this penchant for challenging others that may lead the angry to seek out their opponents’ arguments. And although such an information seeking strategy may be motivated by a taste for confrontation, it may also have the happy side effect of making one more open to persuasion, and, as a result, moderation.