The greatest challenge is stating the problem in a way that will allow a solution.

Tuesday, December 28, 2010

The Bright Side of Anger — It Motivates Others – TIME Healthland

The Bright Side of Anger — It Motivates Others – TIME Healthland

...experimental psychologists at Utrecht University's Goal Lab wanted to investigate further. For their new study, which was recently published in Psychological Science, they presented computer images of various objects like pens and glasses to more than 200 respondents while flashing angry, fearful or expressionless faces in the corners of the screens. Then, to track the effect of these unconscious associations, respondents were asked if they desired the object onscreen. Some were also asked to squeeze a handgrip as hard as they could if they did.

The results showed that respondents tended not to want the objects associated with fearful faces, an expected outcome given the negative nature of this emotion. As for the people subjected to flashes of angry faces, however, they not only tended to want the objects more, but they also squeezed the handgrips harder, suggesting that they were willing to exert effort to acquire the objects.

“The results were surprising,” Aarts says. “Usually, anger and fear go hand in hand — anger makes people fearful. But if you separate these two emotions, they have different effects when attached to objects.”

Perhaps even more surprising are the results of a follow-up study that's currently awaiting publication. Using roughly the same study design, the Goal Lab researchers wondered whether flashes of anger would have an effect on the perceived value of the associated objects. Turns out, people are willing to pay more for pens paired with angry faces.

It's not entirely clear why anger motivates such behavior. “Angry faces could have been viewed as a challenge,” says psychologist Philip Gable, who was not involved in the new study.

But Aarts offers an alternative explanation, one that he came up with after reviewing tapes of six-time Tour de France winner Lance Armstrong. “There's a picture of this guy near the finish line and you see anger in his face but you can also see this determination,” he says. “What's interesting is the facial expression of anger almost completely overlaps with the facial expression of determination.”

Further research is necessary, Aarts says, to figure out if the key to motivation lies somewhere between anger and determination. But for now, he stresses that the participants in his study did not experience anger themselves, but that “it was only the perception of anger that we activated.”

That line between being angry and perceiving anger is crucial. As University of Wisconsin-Madison professor Leonard Berkowitz points out, anger “can be linked to an urge to hurt, and at times, even to destroy the target object.”

Still, the perception of anger appears to be a separate matter. Another study published in the same journal furthers the case for using anger as a motivational tool by demonstrating that team leaders were better at motivating their team to perform by expressing anger — but only if their team members tended to score low on measures of agreeableness to begin with. More agreeable team members responded better to like-minded leaders who expressed happiness.

The implications of these findings are intriguing, to say the least. Imagine the practical applications. Could it be, for instance, that replacing Ronald McDonald's smile with a frown, or hiring angry types as managers would spur some of us to buy more and work harder? Perhaps, but we won't be happy about it.