Anger and silence are the two worst reactions.
- A new study conducted various experiments to explore the relationship between anger and judgments of guilt.
- The results suggest that when an accused person becomes angry, perceivers are more likely to view that person as guilty, even though the accused might be innocent.
- Paradoxically, the study also found that people who are falsely accused generally become angrier than people who are rightfully accused.
Imagine your neighbor accuses you of stealing something. You didn't. But your neighbor doesn't believe you. He continues to accuse you. As he does, other neighbors come over and start watching the confrontation unfold.
How would you react to being falsely accused? Maybe you'd be angry. But even though your anger would be justifiable, it would also likely increase the odds that your neighbors would think you're guilty.
That's the key takeaway of new research published in Psychological Science called "Anger Damns the Innocent." The findings are paradoxical: Being angry tends to make the accused come off as guilty, but their anger is usually a sign that they're innocent.
Why is that the case? The study noted that we look to others' emotions to understand social situations. That's particularly true when deciding whether we should trust someone.
For example, past research shows that people use trustworthiness to make judgments about whether someone is guilty. What's more, studies have also found that anger can make people seem less trustworthy. With these two findings in mind, the researchers proposed:
"...that when perceivers are alerted to a suspect's anger, perceivers are apt to find the suspect untrustworthy, prompting a judgment of guilt. Perceivers may even interpret a suspect's displayed anger as an inauthentic attempt to look innocent by faking moral indignation. This would further explain why perceivers deem an angry suspect guilty via perceptions of (in)authenticity."
If falsely accused, stay calm…but not quiet
Across six studies, the researchers explored how laypeople and experts make guilt judgments when the accused person is angry. In one set of studies, participants watched clips of people accused of minor crimes pleading their case on a courtroom TV show called Judge Faith. The results showed that participants were more likely to rate angry defendants as guilty.
In another study, participants read about a fictitious person named Andrew Smith who was accused of committing an armed robbery. The study included four versions of Smith's reaction to the accusations during his hypothetical testimony: angry, calm, silent, and irritated. For the silent condition, the participants read that Smith had invoked the Fifth Amendment. The other conditions included excerpts like:
- Calm: "I really can't believe I'm being accused of this crime."
- Irritated: "I'm irritated that I'm being accused of this crime."
- Angry: "I'm so fucking OUTRAGED that I'm being accused of this crime!"
The participants rated Smith most guilty when he was silent. Beyond that, being angry made Smith come off as most guilty, while being irritated made him seem guiltier than being calm.
Angry mandundanim via Adobe Stock
In a similar experiment, participants read one of two fictitious scenarios involving a man named Nathan. In both, he had been reasonably accused, but not necessarily guilty, of either cheating on his girlfriend or stealing money from his employer.
The participants were randomized to read either an angry or calm reaction. The angry condition was: "Nathan raises his voice and angrily denies responsibility, yelling, 'I am so pissed off that you think I would do this!'" The calm: "Nathan calmly denies responsibility, stating, 'I really can't believe you think I would do this.'" Again, the participants rated the angry response as guiltier.
Is it just laypeople who view anger as a sign of guilt? To test that idea, the researchers conducted a study similar to the previous one, but its participants were professionals who regularly have to make consequential judgments of others' guilt, such as fraud investigators and auditors.
They too rated the angry response as guiltier. Interestingly, the experts also considered remaining silent to be an indicator of guilt.
The falsely accused are angrier
When someone reacts angrily to an accusation, others generally see that person as guilty. But is anger really a sign of guilt?
To test that question, the researchers asked another set of participants to complete one of two tasks, both of which involved editing text. One task was simple, the other difficult. All participants were told they would be paid to complete the task.
After the participants finished the task, the researchers accused them of doing it incorrectly, and therefore they wouldn't receive a bonus payment. This represented a false accusation for the participants who completed the simple task, most of whom had done it correctly. Meanwhile, the participants assigned to the difficult task generally made errors, so the accusations were mostly accurate.
Afterward, the researchers asked both groups how angry they felt. The results showed that those who were falsely accused reported significantly higher feelings of anger than those who were rightfully accused.
Humans are terrible lie detectors
Overall, the results highlight how most people simply aren't good lie detectors. It's a deficit that's likely contributing not only to interpersonal conflicts but also false criminal convictions.
The researchers said their findings add important insights to the field of deceit detection, showing that anger is not a sign of guilt but of innocence.
"This is particularly important because most research on emotional cues of deception finds little to no association between other discrete emotions and guilt," the researchers wrote. "While scholarship on the psychology of anger posits that the social information it portrays is that there is someone else to blame, we find that anger in this context (mis)portrays the opposite to others: guilt."
The study concludes: "There are many reasons to be angry when accused of wrongdoing, but perhaps none as strong as the belief that one has been falsely accused."
Participants with high levels of narcissism showed high levels of aggression, spreading gossip, bullying others, and more.
Narcissism is defined as “entitled self-importance." The term narcissism comes from the mythical Greek character Narcissus, who fell in love with his own image reflected in still water. Aggression is defined as any behavior intended to harm another person who does not want to be harmed, whereas violence is defined as aggression that involves extreme physical harm such as injury or death.
Our review found that individuals high in narcissism are especially aggressive when provoked, but are also aggressive when they aren't provoked. Study participants with high levels of narcissism showed high levels of physical aggression, verbal aggression, spreading gossip, bullying others and even displacing aggression against innocent bystanders. They attacked in both a hotheaded and coldblooded manner. Narcissism was related to aggression in males and females of all ages from both Western and Eastern countries.
People who think they are superior seem to have no qualms about attacking others whom they regard as inferior.
Why it matters
Research shows everyone has some level of narcissism, but some people have higher levels than others. The higher the level of narcissism, the higher the level of aggression.
Unfortunately, narcissism is on the rise, and social media might be a contributing factor. Recent research found people who posted large numbers of selfies on social media developed a 25% rise in narcissistic traits over a four-month period. A 2019 survey by the smartphone company Honor found that 85% of people are taking more pictures of themselves than ever before. In recent years, social media has largely evolved from keeping in touch with others to flaunting for attention.
What other research is being done
One very important line of work investigates how people become narcissistic in the first place. For example, one study found that when parents overvalue, overestimate and overpraise their child's qualities, their child tends to become more narcissistic over time. Such parents think their child is more special and entitled than other children. This study also found that if parents want their child to have healthy self-esteem instead of unhealthy narcissism, they should give unconditional warmth and love to their child.
Our review looked at the link between narcissism and aggression at the individual level. But the link also exists at the group level. Research has found that “collective narcissism" – or “my group is superior to your group" – is related to intergroup aggression, especially when one's in-group (“us") is threatened by an out-group (“them").
How we do our work
Our study, called a meta-analytic review, combined data from multiple studies investigating the same topic to develop a conclusion that is statistically stronger because of the increased number of participants. A meta-analytic review can reveal patterns that aren't obvious in any one study. It is like looking at the entire forest rather than at the individual trees.
Think you can hide your feelings pretty easily?
When doubts about a relationship start to creep in, people don't just blurt them out. They might not want to worry their partner and figure they'll ride out what could just be a rough patch. They probably think they can hide their feelings pretty easily.
But it turns out, hidden signs of their turmoil appear in the way they communicate.
In our recently published study, we were able to show that people's language subtly changes in the months and weeks leading up to a breakup – well before they've made a conscious decision to end things.
Mining Reddit for cracks
Breakups are difficult to research. They unfold over weeks, months – even years. To truly understand the dynamics of a breakup, researchers should, ideally, be able to track people's lives before, during and after the breakup takes place.
Historically, this hasn't been feasible. But the study of long-term relationships is beginning to change with the advent of social media platforms such as Twitter, Facebook and Reddit. An increasing number of people are now chronicling their daily lives on these platforms, which allows researchers to look at how people cope with upheavals such as breakups both before and after the event. The analysis of people's daily language can reveal information about their shifting emotions, thinking styles and connections with others.
One popular social media platform, Reddit, has designed an online infrastructure that mirrors the way we socialize in real life.
There are hundreds of thousands of communities, known as subreddits, geared to different interests, from tennis and politics, to gaming and knitting. This allows like-minded people to hang out, chat about their interests and ask for advice.
We studied a community called r/BreakUps/, where people discuss the dissolution of their relationships. We identified a group of 6,803 people who had posted about their breakups and tracked their posts up to a year before and after they ended things. But we didn't just look at their posts on the r/Breakups subreddit. We tracked their words across all the subreddits they posted in during this time frame. We wanted to see if there were signs of their impending breakup even when they weren't directly talking about it.
After analyzing over 1 million posts, we identified language markers that could detect an impending breakup up to three months before it actually took place. And we detected changes in people's language that lasted up to six months after the event.
These changes were detectable even when people weren't talking about their relationship. It could appear when the poster was discussing sports, cooking or travel. Even though these people didn't necessarily know the end of the relationship was coming, it was already subtly influencing the way they communicated with others.
Worlds – and words – turned upside down
So how, exactly, does language change?
One big takeaway is that people tend to focus more on themselves, with increased use of “I"-words, as the breakup nears. This is common during a stressful life event, and other studies have shown an increase of self-referential language in people who are depressed or anxious.
At the same time, people's language shows drops in analytic thinking processes, which are often associated with formal and logical thinking. Their language becomes more informal and personal. They make fewer references to concepts, which causes drops in the use of articles such as “the" and “a." They're more likely to talk about other people than ideas.
Around the time of the breakup, people also tend to reference their partner quite a bit, perhaps because they have yet to separate their identity from their partner. Afterwards – as people process their heartbreak – they begin to shift their focus to people who are supporting them during a difficult time.
People's thought processes also experience drastic changes during the breakup. They begin to probe their understanding of the relationship as they try to figure out why it fell apart. This is typical of people trying to make sense of challenging life events, whether it's trauma or bereavement.
As time moves on, people begin to craft a coherent narrative about their breakup, which causes other more logical processes – the ones that deteriorate around the time of the breakup – to reactivate. When this happens, they're ready to move on with the next chapter of their lives.
For most people in our study, it took about six months for their language to return to normal. Of course, grief is a lengthy process and it's natural to feel pangs and mourn for the loss of the relationship occasionally, even after that.
The fact that language analysis can detect subtle signs of a relationship being on the rocks means that clinicians – whether they're mental health professionals, therapists or psychologists – could have a powerful tool at their disposal. For example, some people use phone apps to journal regularly. An app could automatically alert a user when their language is showing signs of extreme emotional distress and suggest resources or professional help.
This type of analysis is already being developed to detect and map other shifts in people's lives, whether it's their participation in a protest movement or the early stages of a health condition, and will only keep getting better as technology advances.
Sarah Seraj, Ph.D. Student, The University of Texas at Austin College of Liberal Arts; James W. Pennebaker, Professor of Psychology, The University of Texas at Austin College of Liberal Arts, and Kate G. Blackburn, Post Doctoral Researcher, The University of Texas at Austin College of Liberal Arts
Social interactions are important for building the strongest relationships.
- When someone says thank you, who is it for? According to Dr. Sara Algoe, expressions of gratitude have a positive effect on the person receiving the message, the person delivering it, and even those who witness the exchange. These types of social interactions are crucial for building lasting relationships with romantic partners, friends, and coworkers.
- "When we say 'thank you,' we're sending a message to the person who just did something nice for us, that they are valued, that they're seen, that the thing that they did for us was worth doing in the first place," Algoe says.
- Expressing gratitude is easy, and the research shows that the benefits far outweigh the effort.
A study finds that sexual regret doesn't change how we behave in the future.
- Researchers from the Norwegian University of Science and Technology investigate the degree to which regret regarding sexual encounters makes us modify our behavior.
- Women more often have regrets about encounters that occurred, while men regret the ones that didn't.
- According to the study, people keep doing what they've been doing and continue to have the same regrets.
When it comes to sexual encounters, both women and men may be left with feelings of regret in the fading afterglow. Women, according to recent research, are more likely to experience "action regret," wishing they hadn't had sex. Men, on the other hand, are more likely to report "inaction regret" if they feel they've passed up on a sexual opportunity.
Both may experience regret, says a new study, but not so much that it changes their behavior going forward.
Speaking to Norwegian SciTech, the lead author of the study, Leif Edward Ottesen Kennair of Norwegian University of Science and Technology (NTNU), says, "For the most part, people continue with the same sexual behavior and the same level of regret."
The evolutionary value of emotion
Credit: Morgan Lane/Unsplash
"We wanted to examine if their level of regret contributed to a change in behavior the next time around," says senior author Mons Bendixen, who collaborated with Kennair and postdoctoral fellow Trond Viggo Grøntvedt.
Explains Kennair, "A lot of emotions are functional, like disgust that protects against infection and fear that protects against danger. An evolutionary approach has helped us understand anxiety by understanding the function of fear: fight-flight-freeze is about avoiding danger and defending ourselves against it."
The authors say that psychologists generally assume that emotions such as regret serve an evolutionary purpose — they keep us from repeating undesirable behavior.
"Researchers," says Grøntvedt, "have found that most people believe this is true for regret. They assume that regret is actually a helpful negative feeling. People assume it guides them not to repeat what they regretted."
The flexibility of regret
Credit: Priscilla Du Preeze/Unsplash
To see if sexual regret does actually change people's behavior, the researchers invited NTNU students to complete an anonymized web questionnaire about sexual regret. Prospective participants were told:
"We invite you to participate in a research project that examines students' thoughts and feelings after having had casual sex (intercourse), and what factors that may affect these… Some of the questions are sensitive and relate to sexual acts and choices you may have made. Responding may cause some discomfort and embarrassment, and we recommend that all participants sit in an uninterrupted location when answering the questions."
Individuals who agreed to participate were asked to fill out the survey two times, 4.5 months apart. The volunteers were between 18 and 30 years of age. For the first pass at the questionnaire, 529 students, 63.2 percent of whom were female, participated. Just 283 people completed the questionnaire both times.
The questionnaire revealed a resounding, "Nope!" Four and a half months later, individuals had continued to hook up or not hook up in the same way they had at the start of the study. They also exhibited the same level of regret.
Credit: Phix Nguyễn/Unsplash
Kennair admits, "We are not that surprised. If regret helped, would not most sinners eventually become saints? What do you regret the most often? Has it changed your behavior?"
The researchers suggest that, as they suspected at the outset of the project, regret is an emotion that's adaptive, with its impact on behavior dependent on context. In the case of sexual regret, there may be a disconnect between what we think we should want and what we really want.
It may also be that habit simply overpowers regret. Previous studies have found that habits create ever-stronger neural pathways — it's why people often repeat mistakes. The idea is that making a mistake a first time creates a neural pathway to which we increasingly and unconsciously gravitate each time we repeat the error.
Kennair cautions, however, against getting too hung up on sexual regrets.
"And yet," he says, "there are some folks who think that depressive ruminating and worry are a good idea. But the way we treat depression and generalized anxiety disorders is by helping people to stop ruminating and to stop worrying. Not everything people do, think or feel is an evolutionary adaptation — sometimes it is not appropriate either."