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Anger: A Natural Reaction That Makes the Innocent Appear Guilty

by Jayson Hawkins

Every wrong looks for a right. It seems to be a deep-seated part of human nature to point fingers whenever things go awry, regardless if by accident or intention. When physical evidence is lacking, our minds home in on subtle hints in body language and the emotional states of potential suspects to arrive at a determination of likely guilt. If we were as skilled at playing the “blame game” as we think we are, this would not be a problem.

A series of recent studies found that we are horrible at it. Six studies performed at the Harvard Business School and the University of Toronto showed that typical human reactions to being wrongly accused were often seen as indications of guilt. Four of the studies focused on the natural tendency for people to get mad when facing false accusations. In every case, people deemed those who became angry to be more likely guilty than those who remained calm. One experiment used only professionals like lawyers, police officers, and fraud investigators, but the “experts” judged the reactions of the wrongly accused no differently than laypersons.

The only reaction that participants in the studies ranked higher on the scale of guilt than anger was silence. People who refused to answer questions about their alleged wrongdoings were rated the guiltiest of all.

The authors of the studies stressed the importance of their research by pointing out how common it is for individuals to be wrongly accused—“from the mundane blaming of others to more serious accusations of infidelity and workplace wrongdoing.” Understanding how and why determinations of guilt are arrived at is crucial because “false accusations can have grave consequences, including broken relationships, job loss, and reputational damage.”

Previous research has shown that false accusations often occur when material evidence is lacking, that it is hard to determine if those accused are telling the truth, and that people tend to use subjective criteria that have no validity when deciding whether or not to believe a suspect. The six recent studies pushed the research further by demonstrating “an equally pernicious phenomenon—the misuse of anger as a cue that does predict whether a suspect has been falsely accused.”

The new research employed the Brunswik Lens Model as a means of quantifying the distance between reality and what people judge it to be. The term ecological validity is used in the studies to measure the degree to which the anger of an accused person reflects their guilt. Cue utilization measures the degree to which the anger of the accused corresponds to others’ judgment of their guilt.

Researchers also built upon studies that have shown getting angry can make a person appear untrustworthy, and the perception of not being able to be trusted feeds into judgments of guilt. Researchers thus hypothesized “that when perceivers are alerted to a suspect’s anger, perceivers are apt to find the suspect untrustworthy, prompting a judgement of guilt. Perceivers may even interpret a suspect’s displayed anger as an inauthentic attempt to look innocent by faking moral indignation.”

It has been well established over the years that anger arises from the experience of a negative outcome or event. Additional studies have shown that fact holds particularly true when others are perceived to be at fault and those who have been blamed see themselves as wrongly accused. Getting angry also is rooted in the infliction of injustice, so anger should be the expected response when facing false accusations. Although it is conceivable that guilty parties could be angered by perceptions of mistreatment or simply being caught, the authors of the recent studies found that “anger is likely to be stronger among the innocent whose experience is a greater injustice.”

The combined paper covering the six studies, entitled “Anger Damns the Innocent,” concludes that observers see angry reactions as proof of guilt regardless of if the accusations against the accused are accurate or not. A 2005 study demonstrated that anger can make individuals appear as if they cannot be trusted, and another in 2009 showed that a lack of trustworthiness was a factor in judging someone guilty. The new studies thus intended to show that a display of anger by a suspect automatically makes them look guilty in perceivers’ minds. Righteous indignation from being unjustly accused may even be read by observers as fakery, which “would further explain why perceivers deem an angry suspect guilty via perceptions of (in)authenticity.”

Study 1 was intended to test if observers saw displays of anger by a defendant as a sign of guilt. Participants watched randomized clips of the TV show Judge Faith, which features an actual judge ruling on real disputes outside of a formal legal setting. Participants then rated the defendants’ level of anger between 1 and 5 and answered “how likely it was that the defendant is guilty?” on a scale from 1 to 7. To ensure that determinations of guilt were based solely on anger, participants also rated the defendants’ sadness and competence. The relationship between perceptions of anger and guilt were as researchers expected. Perceived sadness had no significant effect on judgments of guilt, but it is worth noting that participants rated defendants they viewed as more competent as less guilty.

Study 2 presented participants with a written account of a fictitious man who pleaded not guilty to armed robbery charges. Participants each read one out of four possible scenarios in which the man’s response was either silence, calm, mild anger (“I’m irritated that I’m being accused of this crime.”), or extreme anger (“I’m so fucking outraged that I’m being accused of this crime!”). His reaction was then rated on a scale from 1 to 7 of his likely guilt. The results showed the man was seen as more guilty when very angry than when mildly angry, though even irritation ranked as guiltier than calm. If researchers were surprised by any result, it was that remaining silent was viewed as the guiltiest reaction of all.

Study 3 was undertaken to test if anger as an indicator of perceived guilt applied to situations outside a courtroom. Participants were presented with either of two accounts. In one, a man named Nathan is suspected of skimming from the cash registers at the grocery store where he works. In the other, Nathan’s partner of five years accuses him of cheating after he grows emotionally distant. Nathan denies responsibility in both cases but either yells “I am so pissed off that you think I would do this!” or replies calmly “I really can’t believe you think I would do this.” Participants then rated Nathan’s likely guilt on a scale from 1 to 7. Responses showed virtually no difference between accusations of cheating or stealing. Across the board, Nathan was seen as guiltier when he reacted with anger than with calm.

Study 4 sought to test whether people whose jobs regularly require them to judge the guilt of others also perceived anger as a telltale sign. Professionals in law enforcement, fraud investigators, and the legal field were asked to estimate the likely guilt of an accused person in a scenario related to the participants’ job. Each involved computers stolen from an area to which only three employees could access. When confronted, one employee remained calm, another got angry, and the third would not speak. Participants rated the likely guilt of each employee from 1 to 7. As expected, the employees who reacted with either silence or anger were viewed as more guilty than the calm one. Unlike in Study 2, however, where laypeople viewed a silent response as a likelier sign of guilt, the professionals recorded no significant difference when judging between anger and silence.

Studies 5 and 6 focused on determining whether an angry reaction is more indicative of guilt or innocence. Study 5 asked participants to describe an occasion when they were rightfully or wrongfully accused of either a serious or trivial action. They also answered questions about how long ago it happened, how they felt at the time, and the degree of their innocence or guilt. Not surprisingly, people responded with more anger to false accusations, and that held true regardless of how serious the accusations were. Participants also reported denying wrongful accusations much more often than accurate ones (94.6% to 40.6%) regardless of their seriousness.

To account for the possibility that angry feelings may have dissipated or been misremembered over time, Study 6 attempted to collect data from people in real time. Participants were assigned either a difficult or easy task at random. All were accused of getting it wrong, although 82% of the easy taskers had performed the job correctly. The majority were thus falsely accused; whereas, over 99% of those with the difficult task actually did do it wrong and were thus rightfully accused. Based on participants’ answers to questions afterward, researchers concluded that in “an experiment with a controlled, real accusation, participants were angrier when they were falsely (versus rightfully) accused, which was associated with felt injustice.”

It is a natural reaction to get mad when blamed for something you did not do. Research has long supported anger as a “valid cue of innocence,” yet the recent studies have shown others are likely to misinterpret it as a sign of guilt. The only reaction that may make you look even worse is refusing to speak in your own defense. 


Source:, “Anger Damns the Innocent” under review for Psychological Science

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