Anger Damns the Innocent
William Shakespeare wrote a famous line in Hamlet, “the lady doth protest too much, methinks,” referring to a character who is seen as being overly defensive and therefore, worthy of suspicion. Is this intuition true?
We set out to examine whether anger in response to an accusation was more closely associated with perceptions of innocence or guilt. Like the lady protesting too much, we found that people who express anger—even mild irritation—are more likely to be perceived as guilty than those who react calmly to an accusation.
Yet, we also find that people are usually angrier when they are falsely accused than rightfully accused. This means that although anger is often interpreted as a sign of guilt, it is more likely to be a reflection of innocence.
Perceptions Of Anger And Guilt
First, we tested whether people thought someone was guiltier of wrongdoing when they reacted angrily (versus calmly or silently) to an accusation.
In one study, we showed almost 2,000 study participants a subset of 33 clips from the TV show Judge Faith—a television show in which people publicly plead their cases before a real judge. Participants rated their perceptions of the accused’s anger and guilt. Even holding constant the characters’ demographics and the type of offense, the angrier they believed a person was, the guiltier they seemed.
In another study, we described a fictional case of “Andrew Smith,” who had been accused of armed robbery. Participants read one of four experimental manipulations describing Smith’s reaction: that he had not testified per his constitutional right (i.e., silently), or that that during the testimony he had reacted to the accusation calmly, angrily, or irritatedly. Smith was perceived as most guilty when he was silent. When he was angry or irritated, people thought he was guiltier than when he was calm. People also perceived Smith as more untrustworthy and inauthentic when he was angry rather than calm, which explained why they thought he was guiltier.
The Accuracy Of These Perceptions
We then examined whether this association that people have between anger and guilt was correct—are the guilty more likely to feel and express anger when they are accused?
We asked people to recall a time they had been accused of either a serious or a trivial wrongdoing, and we asked them how angry they had felt. Participants who recalled being falsely accused said that they were angrier than participants who recalled being rightfully accused, regardless of how serious the accusation was.
In another study, we had participants perform an easy or a more difficult task: capitalizing the first and last letter of a series of paragraphs or identifying and deleting the adverbs in those same paragraphs. After they completed the task, participants waited while we said that we were checking their work. Then, we accused all of them (regardless of their actual performance) of not faithfully following the study instructions and said that we might withhold a $2.00 bonus payment.
We anticipated that people who completed the easy task were more likely to be falsely accused, since it was a simple task and they most likely completed it correctly. In contrast, those assigned to the difficult task were more likely to be rightfully accused, since identifying adverbs can sometimes be quite difficult, leading more people to complete this task incorrectly. We found that those assigned to the easy task (and who were therefore more likely to be falsely accused) reported being angrier than those assigned to the difficult task. We also looked at their actual performance on the task, finding that those who were falsely accused reported being angrier than those who were rightfully accused.
It turns out that the very cues that we think reflect a person’s guilt may reflect their innocence: although anger is taken as a cue to guilt, it may indicate that a person has been falsely accused of wrongdoing.
What Does This Mean?
Does this mean that anyone who is accused of wrongdoing and shows anger is innocent? Not necessarily. Our research rests on the assumption that the accused perceive themselves to be innocent—which obviously may be different from true innocence!
Additionally, it is possible that guilty people sometimes try to appear offended by accusations by acting angrily, or that they are angry about being treated unfairly during the accusation process itself. While we did not see evidence of this occurring in our studies, more research is needed to understand these nuances in more depth.
So, it seems, maybe Shakespeare was wrong?
For Further Reading
DeCelles, K. A., Adams, G. S., Howe, H. S., & John, L. K. (2021). Anger damns the innocent. Psychological Science, 32(8), 1214–1226. doi:10.1177/0956797621994770.
ten Brinke, L., Vohs, K. D., & Carney, D. R. (2016). Can ordinary people detect deception after all? Trends in Cognitive Sciences, 20(8), 579–588. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.tics.2016.05.012
Bond, C. F., & DePaulo, B. M. (2006). Accuracy of deception judgments. Personality and Social Psychology Review, 10(3), 214–234. https://doi.org/10.1207/s15327957pspr1003_2
Katy DeCelles is the Secretary of State Professor in Organizational Effectiveness at the Rotman School of Management at the University of Toronto, with a cross-appointment at the Centre for Criminology and Sociolegal Studies. She studies emotion, conflict, morality, and crime.
Gabrielle Adams is an Assistant Professor of Public Policy (Frank Batten School of Leadership and Public Policy) and Business Administration (Darden School of Business) at the University of Virginia. She holds a courtesy appointment in Psychology. She studies the psychological processes and interpersonal dynamics that give rise to ‘good’ decisions, policies, and conditions in organizations.
Holly Howe is a Ph.D. student at the Fuqua School of Business at Duke University. She studies communication across a variety of contexts including advertising, interpersonal relationships, and self-talk.
Leslie John is a Professor of Business Administration at the Harvard Business School. She studies how people make decisions, and the implications of these decisions for firms and society.