Many say that anger always clouds our judgment. Or as Ralph Waldo Emerson observed, anger "blows out the light of reason."
Well, it turns out that old Ralph got that wrong, at least partly. Researchers at the University of California, Santa Barbara, have found that in some cases, a little anger can actually sharpen our ability to analyze data carefully and make the right decisions.
We're not talking road rage here. We're talking about anger more on the level of miffed, or irked, or mad enough to think about telling the boss off. That's the level of anger that should help you to think twice about the boss and possibly figure out a better way to let him know he's acting like a jerk.
"The results of our study seem counterintuitive to people," said psychologist Wesley G. Moons, lead author of the study, published in the Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin. Moons and a colleague, Diane M. Mackie, put a bunch of students through a series of experiments to see if they could "think straight while seeing red," as they put it.
In some cases the students were provoked, or insulted, causing them to describe themselves as angry. In other cases the students were asked to recall something that made them angry. Then they were asked to solve a problem, or analyze some data, to see how anger impacted their judgment.
Among the findings: People who normally think carefully before making a decision were unaffected by their personal anger. And people who don't always think through a situation were actually helped by anger. They were, for example, more likely to rely on data that was furnished by someone in the know than someone who is irrelevant and probably uninformed.
Under the influence of anger, Moons said, the participants "were not stupidly relying on anything that's available" to help them make a decision. "They were selectively using relative, useful information," he said.
How can that be true, since we've been told so often to hold off on making a decision until we cool down? The research suggests that anger, and possibly many other emotions, actually sharpens analytical thinking, helping us throw out irrelevant information, and figuring out a better way to deal with an issue. "Anger motivates people to think more carefully," Moons said.
The researchers offer a couple of theories as to why that might be the case. Any "negative emotional state will signal to an organism that there's something wrong in the environment," Moons said. "If you're not feeling good then there has to be a reason, and you're better off to think carefully about what's happening, what's wrong, and how best to resolve it.
"The negative emotion triggers you into thinking carefully about what's happening, almost as a survival mechanism."
Another theory is you'll feel better about yourself if you figure your own way out of your mess, so a negative emotion, including anger, compels you to think more clearly.
The findings may be counterintuitive to lay persons, and they contradict a number of earlier studies that suggested that anger does, indeed, clobber our ability to think clearly. But those conflicts may be partly the result of differing ideas of what constitutes anger.
The Santa Barbara researchers define two types of anger. Road rage, for example, is a very intense form of anger, leading to physiological arousal. That's not likely to lead to clear thinking.
"Physiological arousal (sweaty palms, racing heart, etc.) has its own independent effect on cognitive functioning," Moons said. "It can inhibit cognitive functioning in and of itself."
But there's also a "cold form of anger," he adds. That's anger in the absence of physiological arousal, like when some jerk tells you that you look goofy. You should be able to think through that clearly, aided by cold anger that helps your decision making machinery look at the relative benefits between laughing it off or punching him in the nose.
That's the kind of anger that Moons and Mackie are studying. So if this column bugs you, at least it ought to help you think straight.
Lee Dye is a former science writer for the Los Angeles Times. He now lives in Juneau, Alaska.