April 30, 2021
Too often, people rely on biases and hunches to judge complex situations. Research by Leslie John shows how easy it is to make the wrong call.
A co-worker accuses you of lying during an important client meeting, and you’re furious because you didn’t lie. Expressing that anger, however, isn’t the best way to prove your innocence, according to new research.
“People may misinterpret that anger as a sign of guilt,” says Harvard Business School professor Leslie K. John, whose paper Anger Damns the Innocent is forthcoming in the journal Psychological Science. In a series of experiments, John and her colleagues—Katherine DeCelles of the University of Toronto, Gabrielle Adams of the University of Virginia, and Holly Howe of Duke University—found that anger can make a person come across as guilty even when they are not.
Too often, when an employee is accused of wrongdoing, people evaluating the situation can make snap judgments based on biases and hunches. This research shows how easy it is for others to make the wrong call about whether an accused person has committed the offense, based on the emotions he or she expresses. Such an unfair judgment can have grave consequences, affecting the accused person’s career and even leading to job loss.
"People who are falsely accused, of course, have every reason to be angry."
The researchers were inspired to investigate the link between anger and guilt five years ago after discussing true crime documentaries and the dynamics of the falsely accused being interviewed by police.
“As behavioral scientists, we wondered what faulty reasoning processes may lead to putting an innocent person behind bars,” says John, the Marvin Bower Associate Professor at HBS. “People who are falsely accused, of course, have every reason to be angry. But we wondered whether displays of anger may be misinterpreted as a sign of guilt.”
First, the team set out to investigate whether people infer guilt from anger. Then, they looked at whether displays of anger related to actual guilt.
Anger isn’t a good look
The authors conducted several studies to examine these questions. In one experiment, the researchers showed participants clips from the courtroom reality TV show Judge Faithfeaturing a variety of accusations involving shady neighbors, moving company mishaps, and reckless drivers.
Participants rated how angry and guilty they thought the TV courtroom parties were. Sure enough, the angrier the participants considered the accused, the guiltier they believed them to be. To help explain this effect, the researchers also documented that people who express anger appear untrustworthy and less authentic.
In another experiment, the research team had participants read fictitious scenarios involving a man named Nathan who was either accused of infidelity by his partner or of stealing money by a co-worker. In each scenario, the researchers randomized Nathan’s response, telling subjects he either calmly denied the allegation, or flew off the handle and yelled angrily when confronted.
Participants on average rated the guilt of the angry Nathan a damning 6.3 on a 7-point scale, while rating a calm Nathan at only 2.9. A separate experiment showed that this judgment happens even when an accused person expresses mild anger—in the form of irritation. In short, people tend to deem anger, even when subtle, to be indicative of guilt.
The wrongly accused react with anger
Next, the researchers investigated whether this perception is accurate: Are the guilty angrier than the innocent? In other words, is anger a cue of guilt? The answer, as it turns out, is no.
To investigate this question, the researchers asked people to recall an incident in which they’d been accused of either a minor offense such as lying, or a major offense such as committing a crime. The researchers then asked how angry they were and how much they expressed that anger.
Participants consistently recalled expressing more anger when they were wrongfully accused than when they actually did something wrong. The more serious the accusation, the angrier they reacted—and many said what made them especially mad was being unfairly judged.
"It seems to be inherently more aggravating to be accused of something you haven’t done because there’s the added element of it being unjust."
The experiment provided more evidence that when people see anger as a sign of guilt, they are often jumping to the wrong conclusion. “It’s actually more likely to be a sign of innocence than of guilt,” John says. “It seems to be inherently more aggravating to be accused of something you haven’t done because there’s the added element of it being unjust.”
To further verify their findings, the researchers set up an experiment to see if they could elicit those feelings of anger in real time. They gave participants a written task and told them they’d receive money for correct answers. The task was either easy, capitalizing the first and last letter of a paragraph, or more difficult, deleting every adverb in a paragraph.
Then, at the end of the experiment, they accused all participants—regardless of whether they had actually done the task correctly—of having done the task incorrectly. This enabled the researchers to manipulate whether people were falsely versus accurately accused. Those in the easy task condition, who by and large did the task correctly, experienced a false accusation. By contrast, those in the difficult task condition, who by and large did the task incorrectly, experienced an accurate accusation.
The researchers asked participants how angry they felt and found that participants who had experienced a false accusation were angrier than those who had experienced an accurate accusation. At the end of the experiment, all participants were compensated.
Based on the results, John recommends that people try to remain calm when they’ve been unfairly blamed. Of course, the idea of keeping cool can seem especially galling for people who have previously experienced the injustice of being falsely accused.
“It’s always tough to control your emotions in the moment,” she says, “but if someone falsely accuses you of padding your resume or switching your sales numbers, although it’s totally valid to feel anger, it’s not a good idea to express it.” DeCelles adds, “When being accused, we know from other research that it is good to indicate a willingness to be cooperative. Anger seems to signal the opposite to others—that you’re hiding something.”
If the accusation comes over email, she adds, it might be a good practice to take a break so you can respond once you’ve calmed down.
On the flip side, if you are a manager and are in a position to judge a worker’s guilt or innocence over a workplace mishap, it may be wise to disregard the person’s emotional demeanor. “While future work needs to examine better tactics, approaching them with curiosity, open mindedness, and concern, rather than with an outright accusation, might help elicit answers rather than anger,” says DeCelles.
"Rather than relying on a person’s facial expressions, try and get the data and see if the claim has merit before you decide on guilt."
“That’s not always easy to do,” admits John, but the more you can get to the bottom of an issue by talking through it, she says, the more likely you are to get it right. “If you suspect an employee of wrongdoing, rather than relying on a person’s facial expressions or other reactions, try and get the data and see if the claim has merit before you decide on guilt.”
DeCelles emphasized that “those who are guilty might express anger, perhaps as a strategic attempt to look morally incensed, being angry at procedural issues rather than the accusation itself, or even not accurately remembering their transgression. But the research shows that, on average, the falsely versus correctly accused seem to both feel and express anger more strongly.”
About the Author
Michael Blanding is a writer based in the Boston area.