Anger over an accusation doesn’t mean that person is guilty, study says

TORONTO, Ontario — Anger is often equated with guilt. It’s a scene depicted in countless movies. A character is brought in for questioning by the police, reacts emotionally, and is immediately considered the prime suspect. In reality, researchers from the University of Toronto find the opposite is actually true in most cases.

“In our studies, an angry response is stronger among the innocent than among the guilty,” says lead researcher Katherine DeCelles, a professor of organizational behavior at Toronto’s Rotman School of Management, in a university release.

Researchers conducted six experiments investigating the disconnect between how other peoples’ angry responses to accusations are perceived versus how we tend to respond when we are falsely accused ourselves. In short, the investigation found that when it comes to assessing anger and guilt, human nature is quite hypocritical.

When subjects were falsely accused of something, they always reacted more emotionally and angrily than if the situation were true. When the tables were turned however, participants judged others as guilty after even mild emotional outbursts following an accusation. A number of scenarios and accusations were presented to participants, ranging from a bank robbery to cheating on a spouse.

‘Very difficult’ to keep anger at bay over false accusations

Interestingly, saying nothing at all in response to an accusation was usually judged as very guilty behavior as well. The best response across the board was to calmly deny the accusation.

“It’s so hard because if you’re falsely accused of something, of course you’ll be upset,” Prof. DeCelles adds. “It’s very difficult to be calm, especially if it’s consequential.”

So, why do we judge other peoples’ emotions so differently than our own? Study authors speculate that each individual, of course, only has access to their own thoughts and experiences. In our own heads, anger in response to a false accusation is justified. When someone else loses their cool, though, it’s harder to give them that same emotional leeway.

Surprisingly, this is the first study to investigate if anger is truly an authentic indicator of guilt. On a related note, even study participants who assess guilt as part of their jobs (police, lawyers, fraud investigators, auditors) consistently fell into the “anger = guilt” trap. Oddly enough, many of such participants quoted Shakespeare’s iconic “thou doth protest too much,” quote to defend their inaccurate perceptions.

Regardless of job or chosen career, Prof. DeCelles says everyone should do their best not to jump to conclusions based on anything but actual evidence.

“Be more in question-asking and information-seeking mode than accusation mode,” she concludes.

The study is published in Psychological Science.

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