Angry denials of wrongdoing leave strong feelings of guilt, new research finds

The next time you’re accused of doing something you didn’t, you might want to control your anger at the door.

New research from the University of Virginia has found that such strong reactions lead others to assume the worst – that you did exactly what you were accused of doing.

Gabrielle Adams, associate professor with joint appointment at the Frank Batten School of Leadership and Public Policy and the Darden School of Business, is the co-author of a new article published in the journal Psychological Science, entitled “Anger Damns the Innocent.” “

The title is appropriate. “The The basic conclusion is that people think anger is a sign of someone’s guilt, ”Adams said. “But if anything, it’s more likely to be a sign of innocence.”

“We conducted four studies showing that people think anger is a sign of guilt, and two studies showing that people falsely accused, compared to rightfully accused, are in fact more likely to be angry, ”Adams said.

In one of the studies, Adams’ team presented participants with a scenario in which a colleague was accused of stealing a computer. The accused colleague, who was part of the experiment, was asked to respond in one of three ways: expressing anger, remaining calm, or remaining silent (a constitutionally granted right). “What we found out was people thought the coworker expressing the anger was the most to blame,” Adams said.

In another experiment, researchers presented a person accused of theft and assault and found that, again, anger reactions were associated with guilt. Here, the researchers asked fraud investigators and people working in the criminal justice field to comment on a person’s innocence or guilt.

Finally, the researchers conducted an experiment in which they rightly or wrongly accused participants of not following study instructions. “When we falsely accused someone of cheating for a salary, they were more likely to be angry than when we rightly accuse them,” Adams said.

Adams extensively studies perceptions of wrongdoing and ethical transgressions. She and her collaborators Katy DeCelles from the University of Toronto, Holly Howe from Duke University and Leslie John from Harvard University note that there is a lot of behavioral science supporting the premise that people are not exact. when it comes to whether someone is lying or telling the truth.

“People think they are reliable guilt detectors, but they really aren’t,” Adams said. “So, we wanted to add to this literature and show that the emotions people express in reaction to the charge matter and have important implications for many stages of the justice process.

Adams said the results can be used in a number of ways. “There are so many contexts in which we need to detect and possibly accuse people of wrongdoing, whether in organizational contexts, criminal justice contexts, or other situations. “

When assessing someone’s innocence or guilt based on an angry response, Adams said it could help change the mindset of “I wonder if this person is guilty? “To” I wonder if this person is innocent? “

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