Everyone has known one: A colleague or an adversary who uses anger as a communication strategy. Through aggressive words, shouting, or other group dominance behaviors, that person is able to get some (sometimes grudging) compliance from the rest of the group. And, more likely than not, that person is male. Of course, the powerful and angry communicator could be a woman, but it seems much more common for women in positions of power to look for ways to soften their style. Instead of shouting and fist-pounding, they find other ways, and the recently disclosed emails showing then Secretary of State Hillary Clinton asking her staff how to add a smiley face to her email messages might be more representative. The view is that, while the “angry man” might exert more power, the “angry woman” will exert less.
That is exactly what a new study shows to be the case. Jessica Salerno and Liana Peter-Hagen (2015) conducted a study on group dynamics in a jury deliberation context, varying the attributed gender and the emotional expression of a holdout juror, and found that anger works quite differently for men and for women. “Anger increases social influence for men,” they conclude, “but diminishes social influence for women.” This finding comes in context of other research showing that women are perceived as being less influential in group discussion, including jury deliberations, and showing that when both real and mock juries are studied, the most influential actors during deliberations tend to be white men. This research could point toward the reasons for that, helping to illustrate the gender dynamics in deliberation and also in advocacy and leadership.
The Research: Angry Men Help Their Case While Angry Women Hurt Theirs
Salerno and Peter-Hagen employed an innovative research design in order to control for the many factors at work in group deliberations. When research participants showed up for the study, they were told they would watch a mini-trial by video and then participate in deliberations with five other participants via computer chat. What they didn’t know was that all five of the other participants were computerized ‘bots’ following a preprogrammed script.
The case involved a husband accused of murdering his wife, and offering the defense that the wife had taken her own life due to depression. The evidence was ambiguous enough that only about 60 percent tended to support guilt. Before deliberating, the research participants saw opening and closing statements, as well as 17 minutes of evidence including a detailed coroner’s report. After being instructed on the law, the research participants completed their own verdict form and then logged on to deliberate. Whether they voted “guilty” or “not guilty” in that predeliberation leaning, they would be joined in deliberations by four other “jurors” (actually computerized confederates) who agreed with them on the verdict, and one “juror” who was a holdout for the other side.
The researchers varied the holdout’s gender using either a male or a female screen name, and they varied whether the holdout’s arguments were accompanied by unambiguous expression of anger including all-caps expressions, and whether the arguments were expressed in fearful terms. Otherwise, the actual content of the holdout’s communication was held constant in each version of the script.
The result? Holdouts who didn’t express anger exerted no influence on the deliberations. When the male holdout expressed anger, that reduced the research participant’s confidence in their own verdict. But when the female holdout expressed anger, research participants became more confident in their own verdict. That response is based on gender alone, since both the “male” and “female” holdout jurors were expressing exactly the same words and emotion.
Why would anger work for men but not for women? The reason seems to be that people draw inferences from emotional expression: Female emotions are attributed to internal causes (“she is just emotional”) while male emotions are attributed to external causes (“If he is that upset, the situation must really be dire”).
In laying out their hypothesis, the authors explain this gender-biased effect of anger. “If Tom disagrees with angry Jason, whose opinion Tom thinks is driven by competence, this might not only validate Jason’s opinion but also reflect negatively on Tom’s own opinion — Tom might lose confidence in his own opinion. In contrast, if Tom disagrees with angry Alicia, whose opinion Tom thinks is driven by emotionality, this might discredit Alicia’s opinion and reflect positively on Tom’s own opinion.” That’s exactly what the study found. Anger from the male holdout caused participants to doubt their own opinion, even when they were part of a 5-1 majority. Angry female holdouts, on the other hand, caused participants to be more confident in their own opinion. The results, the authors conclude, “provide the first experimental evidence in support of frequent anecdotal accounts and media speculation that women’s anger expression is used against them during group decision making.”
The Implications: Anger Has Unequal Effects
Let’s look at it in two contexts.
Anger in the Deliberation Room
The study’s focus is on group dynamics, and specifically jury deliberations. So the finding that male anger is likely to be persuasive while female anger is likely to be counterproductive should factor into an analysis of your potential jury. When assessing likely jury leaders, you should consider whether they seem to be the type that is prone to emotion or not. If they’re male, that might work in their favor, but if they’re female, it could be counterproductive. When viewing mock trial deliberations, the study also suggests another variable to keep track of: Look for the factors that drive anger, and whether they seem to affect both genders equally or not.
Anger in the Courtroom
The study also adds confirmation to a fact that most female trial lawyers are already well aware of: As advocates, they have a bit less latitude than a male would have. That finding tracks with my own dissertation (Bahm, 1993) showing that the use of highly-assertive language tended to be less beneficial to female trial attorneys.
It is understandable if this research finding serves to make women more rather than less angry. And it should, but as an empirical matter, the effects of that anger are still important to consider. Successful advocates adapt to the conditions, and sadly, unequal gender expectations surrounding communication are part of those conditions. So in that moment in closing argument when a male attorney might really hit the gas in sharing some anger, the female attorney will probably want to be a little lighter on that pedal.
I am not saying that men are necessarily angry bulls in a china shop, or that they do or should use anger as a communication strategy. Some do, some don’t. But the point is that there is a different range open to each gender. Maybe it would be better if neither men nor women were able to use anger as an effective strategy, and if we considered all opinions in the cool light of reason. But we don’t. As the authors note in closing, the implications extend beyond the jury: “Our findings suggest that, in the decisions we are all most passionate about in society, including life-and-death decisions made by juries, women might have less influence than men. Our results lend scientific support to a frequent claim voiced by women, sometimes dismissed as paranoia: that people would have listened to her impassioned argument had she been a man.”