Tuesday, August 9, 2016

Why it pays to be grumpy and bad-tempered

The truth is, pondering the worst has some clear advantages. Cranks may be superior negotiators, more discerning decision-makers and cut their risk of having a heart attack. Cynics can expect more stable marriages, higher earnings and longer lives – though, of course, they’ll anticipate the opposite.

Good moods on the other hand come with substantial risks – sapping your drive, dimming attention to detail and making you simultaneously gullible and selfish. Positivity is also known to encourage binge drinking, overeating and unsafe sex…

At the centre of it all is the notion our feelings are adaptive: anger, sadness and pessimism aren’t divine cruelty or sheer random bad luck – they evolved to serve useful functions and help us thrive. 

Take anger. From Newton’s obsessive grudges to Beethoven’s tantrums – which sometimes came to blows – it seems as though visionary geniuses often come with extremely short tempers…

For years, the link remained a mystery. Then in 2009 Matthijs Baas from the University of Amsterdam decided to investigate. He recruited a group of willing students and set to work making them angry in the name of science. Half the students were asked to recall something which had irritated them and write a short essay about it. “This made them a bit angrier, though they weren’t quite driven to full-blown fits of rage,” he says. The other half of the group were made to feel sad.  Next the two teams were pitched against each other in a game designed to test their creativity. They had 16 minutes to think of as many ways as possible to improve education at the psychology department. As Baas expected, the angry team produced more ideas – at least to begin with. Their contributions were also more original, repeated by less than 1% of the study’s participants. “Anger really prepares the body to mobilise resources – it tells you that the situation you’re in is bad and gives you an energetic boost to get you out of it,” says Baas…

Though it’s thought to have evolved primarily to prepare the body for physical aggression, this physiological response is known to have other benefits, boosting motivation and giving people the gall to take mental risks…

All these physiological changes are extremely helpful – as long as you get a chance to vent your anger by wrestling a lion or screaming at co-workers. Sure, you might alienate a few people, but afterwards your blood pressure should go back to normal. Avoiding grumpiness has more serious consequences…

Then in 2010 a team of scientists decided to take a look. They surveyed a group of 644 patients with coronary artery disease to determine their levels of anger, suppressed anger and tendency to experience distress, and followed them for between five and ten years to see what happened next.

Over the course of the study, 20% experienced a major cardiac event and 9% percent died. Initially it looked like both anger and suppressed anger increased the likelihood of having a heart attack. But after controlling for other factors, the researchers realised anger had no impact – while suppressing it increased the chances of having a heart attack by nearly three-fold….

In fact, scientists are increasingly recognising that grumpiness may be beneficial to the full range of social skills – improving language skills, memory and making us more persuasive.

“Negative moods indicate we’re in a new and challenging situation and call for a more attentive, detailed and observant thinking style,” says Joseph Forgas, who has been studying how emotions affect our behaviour for nearly four decades. In line with this, research has also found that feeling slightly down enhances our awareness of social cues. Intriguingly, it also encourages people to act in a more – not less – fair way towards others…

In the game, the first player is given some money and asked how they’d like to divide it between themselves and another player. Then the second player gets to decide whether or not to accept. If they agree, the money is split how the first player proposed. If not, neither player gets any money.
Happier participants keep more of the prize for themselves, while those in a sad mood are significantly less selfish.

The ultimatum game is often used as a test of our sense of fairness by showing whether you expect to get a 50-50 share or whether you are happy for each person to be in it for themselves. Interestingly, all negative emotions led to more rejections by the second player, which might suggest that these feelings enhance our sense of fairness and the need for everyone to be treated equally.

Reversing the set-up reveals this is not just a case of sour grapes, either. The “dictator game” has exactly the same rules except this time the second player has no say whatsoever – they simply receive whatever the first player decides not to keep. It turns out that happier participants keep more of the prize for themselves, while those in a sad mood are significantly less selfish.

“People who are feeling slightly down pay better attention to external social norms and expectations, and so they act in a fairer and just way towards others,” says Forgas…

“Happiness functions like a shorthand signal that we’re safe and it’s not necessary to pay too much attention to the environment,” he says. Those in a continuous happy haze may miss important cues. Instead, they may be over-reliant on existing knowledge – leaving them prone to serious errors of judgement…

Of all the positive emotions, optimism about the future may have the most ironic effects. Like happiness, positive fantasies about the future can be profoundly de-motivating. “People feel accomplished, they relax, and they do not invest the necessary effort to actually realise these positive fantasies and daydreams,” says Gabriele Oettingen from New York University…

Psychologist Julie Norem from Wellesley College, Massachusetts, is an expert pessimist. “I’m a little clumsy, especially when I’m anxious, so I make sure to wear low-heeled shoes. I get there early to scope out the stage and make sure that there aren’t cords or other things to trip over. I typically have several backups for my slides: I can give the talk without them if necessary, I email a copy to the organizers, carry a copy on a flash drive, and bring my own laptop to use…” she says. Only the paranoid survive, as they say.

So the next time someone tells you to “cheer up” – why not tell them how you’re improving your sense of fairness, reducing unemployment and saving the world economy? You’ll be having the last laugh – even if it is a world-weary, cynical snort.


Courtesy of a colleague


  1. Matthijs Baasa, Carsten K.W. De Dreua, Bernard A. Nijstad. Creative production by angry people peaks early on, decreases over time, and is relatively unstructured. Journal of Experimental Social PsychologyVolume 47, Issue 6, November 2011, Pages 1107–1115.

    Anecdotes and introspective reports from eminent scientists and artists aside, a systematic test of the putative creativity-enhancing effect of anger is missing. This article fills this void with three experiments examining creativity as a function of anger (vs. sad or a mood-neutral control state). Combining insights from the literatures on creativity and on mood and information processing the authors predicted that anger (vs. sadness and a mood-neutral control state) triggers a less systematic and structured approach to the creativity task, and leads to initially higher levels of creativity (as manifested in original ideation and creative insights). Following work on resource depletion, the authors further predicted that anger more than sadness depletes resources and that, therefore, creative performance should decline over time more for angry than for sad people. Results supported predictions. Implications for creativity, information processing, and resource depletion are discussed.

  2. Denollet J, Gidron Y, Vrints CJ, Conraads VM. Anger, suppressed anger, and risk of adverse events in patients with coronary artery disease. Am J Cardiol. 2010 Jun 1;105(11):1555-60.

    Anger is associated with cardiovascular stress reactivity; however, little is known about the effect of suppressed anger in patients with coronary artery disease (CAD). We examined whether patients with CAD who suppress their anger are at risk of adverse events. At baseline, 644 patients with CAD completed measures of anger, anger-in (reluctance to express anger), and Type D personality (tendency to experience distress and to be inhibited). The combination of high anger and anger-in scores was used to identify the presence of suppressed anger. The end points were major adverse cardiac events (a composite of death, myocardial infarction, and revascularization) and cardiac death/myocardial infarction. After an average follow-up of 6.3 years (range 5 to 10), 126 patients (20%) had experienced a major adverse cardiac event, and 59 (9%) had experienced cardiac death or myocardial infarction. Anger (p = 0.009) and suppressed anger (p = 0.011) were associated with future major adverse cardiac events, but these associations were no longer significant after adjustment for clinical characteristics. However, suppressed anger remained associated with the more rigorous end point of cardiac death or myocardial infarction (odds ratio 2.87, 95% confidence interval 1.15 to 7.15, p = 0.024) after controlling for decreased systolic function, poor exercise tolerance, extent of CAD, and revascularization. Anger alone was not independently associated with this end point. Patients with a Type D personality had a fourfold rate of suppressed anger, and an adjustment for a Type D personality attenuated the observed association between suppressed anger and adverse cardiac events. In conclusion, patients with CAD who suppress their anger were at increased risk of adverse cardiac events, and this was accounted for by individual differences in Type D personality.

  3. Joseph P. Forgas, Rebekah East. On being happy and gullible: Mood effects on skepticism and the detection of deception. Journal of Experimental Social Psychology Volume 44, Issue 5, September 2008, Pages 1362–1367

    Are we more likely to believe or disbelieve another person depending on our mood state? Based on past research on interpersonal communication and recent work on affect and social cognition, we predicted and found that negative mood increased and positive mood decreased people’s skepticism and their ability to detect deception, consistent with the more externally focused, accommodative processing style promoted by negative affect. After a mood induction using positive, neutral or negative films, participants viewed deceptive or truthful interviews with individuals who denied committing a theft. Judgments of the targets’ guilt and their truthfulness were collected. As predicted, negative mood increased judges’ skepticism towards the targets, and improved their accuracy in detecting deceptive communications, while judges in a positive mood were more trusting and gullible. The relevance of these findings for everyday judgments of trust and the detection of deception are considered, and their implications for recent affect-cognition theories are discussed.

  4. Liu C, Chai JW, Yu R. Negative incidental emotions augment fairness
    sensitivity. Sci Rep. 2016 Apr 22;6:24892.

    Previous studies have shown that task-unrelated emotions induced incidentally exert carryover effects on individuals' subsequent decisions in financial negotiations. However, the specificity of these emotion effects are not clear. In three experiments, we systematically investigated the role of seven transiently induced basic emotions (disgust, sadness, anger, fear, happiness, surprise and neutral) on rejection of unfair offers using the ultimatum game. We found that all negative emotions (disgust, sadness, anger and fear), but not happiness or surprise, significantly increased rejection rates, suggesting that the effect of incidental negative emotions on fairness is not specific to the type of negative emotion. Our findings highlight the role of fleeting emotions in biasing decision-making processes and suggest that all incidental negative emotions exert similar effects on fairness sensitivity, possibly by potentiating attention towards negative aspects of the situation.