Category: Anger

A laboratory study of "everyday sadism"

No bugs or humans were hurt in the course of this research but the participants didn’t know that at the time. Psychologist Erin Buckels and her colleagues tricked their volunteers for the purpose of investigating “everyday sadism” – the tendency for many “apparently normal, everyday people” to derive pleasure from inflicting pain on others.

Seventy-one students thought they were taking part in a study of personality and tolerance of challenging jobs. As such, they had to choose between killing bugs, helping kill bugs, cleaning toilets or enduring pain by placing their hand in iced water.

Buckels’ team found that students who scored higher on a sadism questionnaire (e.g. do you agree “Hurting people is exciting?”) were more likely to be among the 53 per cent who chose the bug killer or killer’s assistant option. This involved placing Muffin, Ike and Tootsie (yes, the bugs had names) into a machine and grinding them to death, or watching someone else do the same. Sound effects gave the impression the bugs’ exoskeletons were crunching like nut shells. In truth Muffin and co escaped via an emergency slide, but the students didn’t realise this until later.

To the researchers’ surprise, the high scorers on sadism actually reported less pleasure after the killing than the non-sadists. Closer examination provided some explanation. Sadists reported lower pleasure across all the challenges, not just the killing. And those sadists that did the killing reported more pleasure than those who didn’t. “Sadists may use cruelty to compensate for a low baseline level of positive emotion,” the researchers said.

Would you blast a stranger with loud white noise, just for the fun of it? Seventy-one student participants in a follow-up study had this very opportunity. They thought they were competing at a reaction time challenge with an opponent located in another room (in truth the whole thing was computerised). Each round they won, the students had a chance to blast their opponent. The “opponent” always refrained from such aggression on the rounds he won, and yet high scorers on sadism seized their chances to blaze his eardrums.

Note that in both the studies, Buckels and her team also took measures of the students’ psychopathy, Machiavellianism, and narcissism. Sadism scores predicted choice of the aggressive options in both studies, above and beyond the explanatory power of these so-called Dark Triad traits. Moreover, in the second study, only sadists were willing to complete a boring challenge (crossing out letters in Latin text) purely for the chance to blast their opponents. Psychopaths, narcissists and the rest didn’t go to the trouble. Based on this, Buckels et al said that sadism should be added to the Dark Triad, to make a “Dark Tetrad”.

“Our findings provide a glimpse into sadism in everyday life,” the researchers concluded. “We hope this research will persuade readers to construe sadism as something more than a sexual disorder to be studied in hardened criminals.”
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Buckels EE, Jones DN, and Paulhus DL (2013). Behavioral Confirmation of Everyday Sadism. Psychological science PMID: 24022650

–Further reading–
This is not the first psychology study to involve the apparent killing of bugs. Check out “How killing begets more killing“.

Post written by Christian Jarrett (@psych_writer) for the BPS Research Digest.

Beat anger by imagining you’re a fly on the wall

Anger is “the elephant in the room in mental health” according to The Mental Health Foundation. In a survey they conducted in 2008, a third of respondents said they knew someone with an anger problem. Anger is often made worse by misguided folk wisdom that says it’s a good idea to reflect on your feelings and vent them. In fact, past research has shown that ruminating and venting anger make it worse.

A new study tests the idea that anger can be dissipated by mentally distancing oneself from the situation – as if viewing proceedings from the perspective of a fly on the wall. There’s evidence that this is beneficial, but before now this was derived from studies that merely asked people to imagine frustrating scenarios. Now Dominik Mischkowski and his colleagues have ramped up the realism levels, deliberately winding up their participants in the lab.

Ninety-four undergrads signed up for what they thought was an investigation into the effects of music on problem solving and creativity. They listened to some intense classical music and attempted to solve a series of anagrams against the clock. Part of the procedure involved them reading back the correct answer to the researchers over an intercom. This is where the wind up began – the experimenter repeatedly said that they weren’t speaking loudly enough. After the twelfth anagram he went as far as saying “Look this is the third time I have to say this! Can’t you follow directions? Speak louder!”

Immediately after the wind up, the participants were told a second experiment (on the effects of music on feelings) required that they reflect on the previous anagram task – either seeing the situation unfold again through their own eyes, or as if they were watching the situation from a distance, “as if it were happening to the distant to you all over again.” A third of the participants acted as controls and were  told to reflect on the anagram task without any specific instructions. Afterwards, all the participants rated their anger levels. The key finding was that the participants in the distancing condition reported feeling less angry and having fewer aggressive thoughts compared with participants in the self-immersion and control conditions.

A second study was similar but this time a new set of participants were given the chance to actually vent their anger. After the wind up and the reflection phase (from a distance vs. immersed in their own perspective) the participants were invited to take part in a competitive anagram task with a partner located in another room. Part of this involved the chance to blast their opponent with loud noise when he/she got answers wrong – taken as a sign of aggressive behaviour. The important result here – participants who reflected on the initial, frustrating anagram task as if from the perspective of a fly on the wall showed less aggression compared with the other participants.

Mischkowski and his team said their findings showed “how people can neutralize aggression while focusing on their emotions and the situation at hand—by adopting a self-distanced perspective.” They added that this is important given that distraction is often not possible in real life situations, for example when it’s necessary to carry on interacting with the provocateur.

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Dominik Mischkowskia, Ethan Kross, and Brad J. Bushmana (2012). Flies on the wall are less aggressive: Self-distancing “in the heat of the moment” reduces aggressive thoughts, angry feelings and aggressive behaviour. Journal of Experimental Social Psychology DOI: 10.1016/j.jesp.2012.03.012

Post written by Christian Jarrett for the BPS Research Digest.

How anger can make us more rational

Anger can de-bias our thinking

Imagine you’re in a room with four people, one is lip-snarling angry, the others are calm. Who among them would you consider the most likely to think rationally? A surprising new study suggests that in at least one important respect it’s actually the angry individual who will be the more rational decision maker. How come? Because they’ll be less prone to the confirmation bias – our tendency to seek out information that supports our existing views.

Maia Young and her colleagues had 97 undergrads take part in what they thought were two separate experiments. The first involved them either recalling and writing about a time they’d been exceptionally angry (this was designed to make them angry), or a time they’d been sad, or about mundane events.

Next, all the participants read an introduction to the debate about whether hands-free kits make speaking on a mobile phone while driving any safer. All participants had been chosen because pre-study they believed that they do. The most important part came next, as the participants were presented with one-sentence summaries of eight articles, either in favour, or against, the idea that hands-free kits make driving safer. The participants had to choose five of these articles to read in full.

Which participants tended to choose to read more articles critical of hands-free kits and therefore contrary to their own position? It was the participants who’d earlier been made to feel angry. What’s more, when the participants’ attitudes were re-tested at the study end, it was the angry participants who’d shifted more from their original position on the debate.

These findings were supported in a follow-up involving 89 adults, with the controversial issue pertaining to who should be the next US president, in what was then the upcoming 2008 election. Once again, participants provoked into feeling angry tended to choose to read articles that ran counter to their original position (be that favouring Obama or McCain). Another detail was that this effect of anger was entirely explained by what the researchers called a ‘moving against’ tendency, measured by participants’ agreement, after the anger induction, with statements like ‘I wanted to assault something or someone’.

Young and her team said their results provided an example of anger leading to a cognitive pattern characterised by less bias. ‘Although the hypothesis disconfirming behaviour that anger produces may well be an aggressive act, meant to move or fight against the opposition’s opinion,’ they said, ‘its result is to provide those who feel angry with better information.’

What are the real-life implications of this result? The researchers conceded that it’s unrealistic to make people angry as a way to improve their decision making. However, they said that in a work meeting, if someone is angry, they might be the one best placed to play the role of devil’s advocate on behalf of the group. ‘By encouraging angry group members to select information necessary for group discussion,’ the researchers explained, ‘the group as a whole may get the benefit of being exposed to diverse views and, as a result, achieve a more balanced perspective.’
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ResearchBlogging.orgYoung, M., Tiedens, L., Jung, H., and Tsai, M. (2011). Mad enough to see the other side: Anger and the search for disconfirming information. Cognition and Emotion, 25 (1), 10-21 DOI: 10.1080/02699930903534105

Post written by Christian Jarrett (@psych_writer) for the BPS Research Digest.

Effect of anger on negotiations depends on cultural context

The expression of anger in negotiations can be an effective strategy, several studies have shown, because it is interpreted by others as a sign of toughness, thus encouraging them to make concessions. However, there’s a hefty caveat to this conclusion because those studies were conducted entirely in a Western context. Now Hajo Adam and colleagues have attempted to correct this oversight by studying the effect of anger in negotiations conducted by American students hailing from a Western background and American students with an East Asian ancestry. Adam’s finding is that expressions of anger backfire in negotiations involving people with an East Asian background. A follow-up study suggested this is because such behaviour is considered culturally inappropriate.

The first study with 63 participants of European ancestry and 67 of East Asian ancestry involved a hypothetical negotiation situation. The students read a transcript of a negotiation between a salesman and client and imagined they were the salesman. Half the students read a version in which the client was described at one point as speaking in an angry tone. The key measure was whether the students said they would agree to add a warranty into the deal or not. The effect of anger was opposite for the two cultural groups: the Western students were more likely to add the warranty (i.e. make a concession) if the client got angry whereas the East Asian students were less likely to add the warranty in this situation.

To increase the realism, a second study involved another 67 European-ancestry students and 88 East Asian-ancestry students taking part in computer-mediated negotiations in pairs, in which they played the role of mobile phone seller. The whole affair was actually fixed by the researchers and computer-controlled but the students were tricked into thinking they were playing with another student. Another twist to the set-up was that the students were occasionally given a ‘sneak insight’ into their negotiation partner’s typed intentions, for example ‘I think I’ll offer X’. Replicating the first study, the key finding here was that when these insights contained an expression of anger (e.g. ‘This is really getting on my nerves, I’m going to offer X’) the Western-ancestry students were more likely to make a concession to their negotiation partner whereas the East-Asian ancestry students were less likely to do so.

The final study provided a rather crude test of one possible explanation for the results – that the effect of anger has to do with what’s considered culturally appropriate. Dozens of European and East-Asian-ancestry students took part in a replication of the computer-mediated negotiation task, but this time half the students were told in advance that most people express anger in negotiations and that it was acceptable to do so in this study, whereas the other half were told that expressions of anger were rare and it was not acceptable to get angry in the current task. With these instructions in place, the effects of cultural background disappeared. Instead, regardless of students’ cultural background, anger was beneficial following the ‘anger is ok’ instructions whereas it backfired following the ‘anger is unacceptable’ instructions.

‘Although we believe the present results are an important step in understanding how culture and emotions interact in negotiations,’ the researchers said, ‘the increasingly global nature of society highlights the importance of continuing to investigate the interplay of culture and emotions in a broad array of social settings.’
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ResearchBlogging.orgAdam H, Shirako A, & Maddux WW (2010). Cultural variance in the interpersonal effects of anger in negotiations. Psychological science : a journal of the American Psychological Society / APS, 21 (6), 882-9 PMID: 20483822

Post written by Christian Jarrett (@psych_writer) for the BPS Research Digest.

The surprising links between anger and time perception

The way we think about abstract concepts like time is grounded in physical metaphors. For example, we talk about re-arranged events being moved from one day to another, as if through space. Similarly, there is a metaphorical, embodied aspect to our emotions – fear is associated with physical withdrawal, for example, whilst anger is associated with approach and confrontation. An intriguing new study shows that this shared way of thinking about time and emotion can lead to some surprising effects.

David Hauser and colleagues first showed that people with an angrier temperament are more likely to think of themselves as moving through time, than to think of time as moving towards them. You can test this on yourself by considering which day of the week a meeting has changed to, if it was originally planned for Wednesday but has been moved forward two days. If you think it’s now changed to Friday, then you’re someone who thinks of themselves as moving through time, whilst if you think the meeting is now on Monday, then you’re more passive, and you think about time passing you by.

In a second study, Hauser’s team asked 62 student participants a version of this question but they made it so the re-arranged event was either anger-provoking or neutral. On average, more students presented with the angry version said the event had been moved to Friday (as if they themselves were moving through time) than students presented with the neutral version. Moreover, the angry-version students were more likely (than the neutral students) to say that they felt as though they were approaching the event, rather than that the event was approaching them. In other words, it seems that angry thoughts can change the way we think about time.

A final study turned this on its head and showed that thinking about moving through time can induce anger. The researchers presented 87 students with a computer screen flat on a desk, facing the ceiling. On it were the days of the week, in a vertical line with Saturday at the top, then Friday, Thursday, all the way down to Sunday at the bottom, nearest the participant. Commands were given that either provoked thoughts about moving through time, away from the participant (e.g. a meeting has moved forward two days from Sunday to Wednesday – please highlight the new day on the screen), or thoughts about time moving towards the participant (e.g. a shift down the screen, towards the participant from Wednesday to Sunday). Participants primed to think about their movement through time subsequently rated themselves as feeling angrier than participants in the “time moving towards them” condition.

“These studies support theories of embodied cognition by showing that abstract concepts that share a perceptual domain can influence each other in a novel but predictable manner,” the researchers said.
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ResearchBlogging.orgHauser, D., Carter, M., & Meier, B. (2009). Mellow Monday and furious Friday: The approach-related link between anger and time representation. Cognition & Emotion, 23 (6), 1166-1180 DOI: 10.1080/02699930802358424

If you like this post you might also like:

Want to achieve something? Picture yourself doing it from a third-person perspective
Asian Americans and European Americans differ in how they see themselves in the world
Our changing attitudes to time
Is your time always running out?

Post written by Christian Jarrett (@psych_writer) for the BPS Research Digest.

When to scowl

Psychologists have tended to study facial emotional expressions outside of their real-life social context. But in reality, of course, our facial expressions are usually accompanied by what we, or someone else, is saying or doing. A new study by Shlomo Hareli and colleagues acknowledges this, investigating the effects of sad, friendly and angry expressions in either a clear-cut complaint scenario versus a more ambiguous situation. The results show that scowling, or showing your anger, can be effective when the social situation is ambiguous, presumably because it helps convey the sincerity of your feelings.

Hundreds of participants watched videos of actors complaining about a fridge or a poster. The complaint was either clear-cut (the fridge hadn’t been fixed as requested, or the wrong colour had been used on the poster) or it was less justified (the technician hadn’t anticipated a fridge problem that emerged later, or the poster text was considered too small, even though size hadn’t been specified in advance). The complaints were delivered with an angry facial expression, a sad expression or with a friendly, smiling demeanour.

An interesting interaction emerged – the participants rated less-justified complaints as more credible when delivered with an angry face, rather than a sad face or friendly face, but this was reversed for the well-justified, clear-cut scenario. It’s possible that a scowl in a clear-cut scenario comes across as aggressive, whereas it conveys sincerity in a more ambiguous situation.

“The present findings support the notion that when the emotion expression adds new information to the verbal message it can affect the persuasiveness of the overall message and thereby credibility,” the researchers said.
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ResearchBlogging.orgHareli, S., Harush, R., Suleiman, R., Cossette, M., Bergeron, S., Lavoie, V., Dugay, G., & Hess, U. (2009). When scowling may be a good thing: The influence of anger expressions on credibility. European Journal of Social Psychology, 39 (4), 631-638 DOI: 10.1002/ejsp.573

Post written by Christian Jarrett (@psych_writer) for the BPS Research Digest.

The health costs of a hostile disposition

Here’s a great scientific reason to be nice. American psychologists have shown that having a hostile attitude could be bad for your health, especially if you are someone judged by society to be of lower social status.

Benita Jackson and colleagues measured the hostility and lung function of 4,629 healthy participants aged between 18 and 30 years, living in Minneapolis, Birmingham, Chicago or Oakland, USA.

Reduced lung function is a risk factor for chronic obstructive pulmonary disease – the sixth most common cause of death worldwide. Greater lung capacity in youth is known to provide protection from the illness later in life. Meanwhile, hostility is associated with immune functioning and hormonal activity, and it’s via these biological pathways that the researchers predicted hostility might have an adverse effect on lung function.

Lung function was gauged by asking participants to wear a nose clip and blow into a machine. Hostility was measured by participants’ agreement with statements like “I am easily angered” and “I strongly defend my own opinion as a rule”.

Those participants who were more hostile in nature also tended to have relatively poorer lung function, regardless of whether they were a smoker or not. This could leave these participants at greater risk of pulmonary disease later in life.

“It appears that hostility hurts, insofar as it is associated with lowered pulmonary function,” the researchers said.

The association held true for black men and women, and white women, but did not quite reach statistical significance for white men. The researchers surmised this could be because black people and white women who have a hostile demeanour are chastised by society for their attitude, thus causing them harmful stress. By contrast, a hostile demeanour in white men might be treated by society as a sign of authority.

The cross-sectional nature of the research means a causal link between hostility and lung function has not been irrefutably established. It’s possible, though intuitively unlikely (given the levels talked about here), that poorer lung function causes hostility, and it’s also possible that one or more unknown factors have a concurrent effect on both lung function and hostility.
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Jackson, B., Kubzansky, L.D., Cohen, S., Jacobs Jr., D.R. & Wright, R.J. (2007). Does harbouring hostility hurt? Associations between hostility and pulmonary function in the Coronary Artery Risk Development in (young) Adults Study. Health Psychology, 26, 333-340.

Post written by Christian Jarrett (@psych_writer) for the BPS Research Digest.

Why you should add a bit of Grrrrr to your negotiations…

Past research has shown it’s disadvantageous to feel down or angry when you’re negotiating. But now Marwan Sinaceur and Larissa Tiedens argue that pretending you’re angry can be beneficial, especially when dealing with someone who has few options, because it gives the impression you are “dominant, strong and tough”.

First they asked 157 students to imagine they were a salesman for a technology company, and to read a fictional account of a negotiation between themselves and a buyer. Afterwards, the students who read a version in which the buyer got angry agreed to more concessions than the students who read a version in which he stayed calm, but only if they were told beforehand that their business was struggling at the moment.

In a second experiment, 142 students role-played in pairs, with half of them acting as a an employer and half as a job candidate. The students playing the role of ‘employer’ were given negotiation advice beforehand. Compared with the ‘employers’ advised to hide their emotions, the ‘employers’ who were told it was good to look angry (plus tips on feigning anger by frowning or banging the table) managed to negotiate better terms on salary, holiday, work location and equipment, but only if they were negotiating with a ‘candidate’ who thought there were no other jobs available.

“Whereas feeling angry has been shown to lead to bad negotiation outcomes, we showed that expressing anger can lead to good negotiation outcomes”, the researchers concluded. However, they advised that the strategy be treated with caution in light of earlier work showing that expressing an emotion can cause you to feel that emotion, and because you could put people off negotiating with you in the future. “As such, the expression of anger may be a strategy best suited for relatively short single-shot negotiations”, they said.
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Sinaceur, M. & Tiedens, L.Z. (2006). Get mad and get more than even: When and why anger expression is effective in negotiations. Journal of Experimental Social Psychology, 42, 314-322.

Post written by Christian Jarrett (@psych_writer) for the BPS Research Digest.

The brain can’t ignore angry voices

We’re highly tuned to emotional signals. So whereas most of the information bombarding our brain is filtered, emotion-related signals seem to strike home regardless. Take fearful faces – research has shown these trigger the same activity in a fear-sensitive brain region, the amygdala, regardless of whether we’re paying attention to them. This is in contrast to how the brain normally works. For example, a face will trigger a different amount of activity in the brain’s fusiform gyri – a kind of face-processing module – depending on whether that face is being attended to. Didier Grandjean and colleagues at the University of Geneva wanted to find out whether the brain treats emotional sounds with the same priority as emotional sights.

Fifteen participants had their brains scanned while they were played two meaningless but word-like utterances to both their ears at once. These utterances were either neutral in their stress, tone and timing or they could convey anger. The participants’ attention was always directed to one ear at a time by a task which required them to identify the gender of the voice at either their left or right ear.

An angry utterance at one ear triggered the same enhanced activity in the right middle superior temporal sulcus, regardless of whether a person was paying attention to that ear. “This suggests the right superior temporal sulcus…(is) finely tuned to extract socially and affectively salient signals from conspecficis (others of the same species)”, the authors said. Together with past research, this points to a system that prioritises “orienting towards significant stimuli even when these are not the focus of attention”.
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Grandjean, D., Sander, D., Pourtois, G., Schwartz, S., Seghier, M.L., Scherer, K.R. & Vuilleumier, P. (2005). The voices of wrath: brain responses to angry prosody in meaningless speech. Nature Neuroscience, 8, 145-146.

Post written by Christian Jarrett (@psych_writer) for the BPS Research Digest.