Analyze This! Anger Helps Decision Making

Author:  Charley Wang

Institution:  University of Toronto
Date:  July 2007

Traditionally, anger is associated with bad reasoning and poor decisions, but a recent study from the University of California, Santa Barbara suggests that this may not be true. New findings show that even in the presence of automatic responses, or heuristics, angry people are actually better suited to analytical thinking.

Heuristics are sets of learned or inherited biases used to filter information from the outside world. They arise because they work well in general. (For example, always trusting information from a deaf friend.) Yet in certain situations they may trigger poor decisions. (For example, trusting information from a deaf friend on rock concerts.)

Past studies have shown that heuristics are more likely to influence an angry person, which should hinder analytical skills. But at the same time anger is known to be a powerful motivator, which should improve analytical skills. So a team led by Dr. Wesley Moons and Dr. Diane Mackie decided to see if people could "think straight while seeing red" and explore the effects of anger on decision making.

Angry and calm participants were given a series of persuasive arguments characterised as strong' or weak' by the researchers. The study found that angry participants clearly distinguished between strong and weak, while calm ones failed to tell the difference.

Furthermore, when heuristic cues were given, not only were angry participants better at distinguishing between strong and weak arguments, they were also better at distinguishing between relevant and irrelevant cues.

Overall, the study showed that a state of anger can lead to stronger reasoning skills. But that doesn't mean you should try to enrage yourself before your next exam. Because while anger might help you write a brilliant 5-page answer with labelled diagrams, it might also help you forget that the exam is multiple choice.

And that would really make you angry!

- Written by Charley Wang.