Human strategic use of anger

People intentionally anger others to gain a competitive advantage in certain sitations, new research has shown.
19 January 2014


Angry woman


People intentionally anger others to gain a competitive advantage in certain sitations, new research has shown.

When the celebrated French footballer Zidane was famously sent off for headbutting a member of the other team in the 2006 World Cup, most likely costing France the match in the process, he protested that his Italian opponent had insulted him. But, by being provocative, was Marco Materazzi, the Italian player, craftily counting on Zidane reacting the way he did? 

Citing this case, Uri Gneezy, from UCSD, Alex Imas, from the University of Amsterdam, have shown that humans do indeed appear to resort to strategic anger to advantage themselves in certain situations.

In their paper, published in PNAS, the duo recruited volunteers to participate in two competitive tests, one a show of strength, the other a cognitive challenge.

First, the participants had to squeeze a handle as hard as they could. The winner was judged to be the person who applied the largest force registered by the machine.

After the first round of measurements, one of the participants was told that he could choose how much time, up to a maximum of 20 minutes, the other participant had to stay behind after the tests to complete all of the study paperwork for both of them. A cost incentive was applied so that the "decision maker" received a larger cash bonus the longer the other person was kept waiting.

The two participants then compared grip strengths again. This time, the participants who had been told they would be kept waiting performed significantly better, indicating that anger under these circumstances gave them an advantage.

In the second task, a different group of participants took part in a fantasy duel. They were placed a certain number of steps away from each other and took turns either to advance by one step, or shoot. At each stage they were told the probability that they would hit their opponent if they decided to shoot from that location.

The likelihood of a hit increased as the distance between the participants closed, but not by a fixed amount. This meant that the best strategy to win was to advance 15 steps before electing to shoot.

Again, in this test, one of the two participants was "angered" in the same way as the volunteers in the first task, by telling them the other participant had chosen for them to remain behind afterwards.

But unlike in the first task, when anger was advantageous, this time the angry participants were significantly disadvantaged by their ire, making worse choices and frequently electing to shoot too soon so, on average, they lost the game.

In either task, though, given the chance to "cool off" for 10 minutes after being angered removed the bias, confirming that acute anger was the cause. 

So were the participants subconsciously aware of the impact that anger might have on their oppoents in these tasks? The results suggest that they were and that they were using anger strategically: in the strength task, only 45% of the participants assigned the full 20 minute hold-up to their opponent, compared with 63% of participants in the duelling task.

"These results," say Gneezy and Imas, "suggest that individuals anticipated the behavioural effects of anger and used the strategically - they were more willing to anger their opponents when it had a detrimental effect on their performance."


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