By Annalee Newitz
Two psychology researchers had a simple question: How do emotions influence our decisions? What they discovered was a strong association between two emotions we don’t normally connect. People who were angry made choices that were just as optimistic as those made by happy people.
In 2001, Jennifer S. Lerner and Dacher Keltner published a study documenting a series of psychological tests they’d conducted on undergraduate volunteers. The tests measured the subjects’ general moods, and then asked them to make a series of decisions about how they would proceed in situations where there were high probabilities that many people would be killed — but also the possibility that those people could be saved, too. What they found was that people who were angry made the more optimistic decisions, aiming to take more risks if it meant saving more people. Fearful people, on the other hand, usually made pessimistic choices where they were willing to sacrifice more people if it meant taking fewer risks.
And here’s the interesting part. The angry people scored very similarly to the way that happy people did on the same tests. What that means is that people who are happy and people who are angry tend to make decisions based on optimism. Of course, optimism also entails risk. Angry and happy people are less risk-averse than fearful ones.
As Lerner and Keltner wrote in their paper [PDF] in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology:
Fearful individuals consistently made relatively pessimistic judgments and choices, whereas both happy and angry individuals consistently made relatively optimistic judgments and choices … Fear and anger have opposite effects on risk perception. Whereas fearful people expressed pessimistic risk estimates and risk-averse choices, angry people expressed optimistic risk estimates and risk-seeking choices. These opposing patterns emerged for naturally occurring and experimentally induced fear and anger. Moreover, estimates of angry people more closely resembled those of happy people than those of fearful people.
Key to this discovery is that the results were the same whether people had angry personalities, or had been aroused to anger in the course of the experiment. So becoming angry in a crisis situation could be beneficial — though it is also more risky.
Read their full scientific paper here.