Human memory is prone to error — and new research provides evidence that anger can increase these errors. The new findings have been published in the scientific journal Experimental Psychology.
“My interest in the impact of anger on misinformation came from both real-world experience and research,” said study author Michael Greenstein, an assistant professor at Framingham State University.
“From the real-world side, there’s this phrase that people say — ‘don’t get emotional.’ That phrase is somewhat often used to describe anger and the idea that when you’re angry you’ll make poor decisions, which would also imply poor memory use.”
“From the research side, anger is an interesting emotion because it somewhat defies traditional classifications in that it’s a ‘negative’ emotion, but it impacts cognition in a lot of ways that are more similar to ‘positive’ emotions.”
In the study, 79 participants watched an 8-minute excerpt of the film Defending Your Life. The participants then completed two challenging cognitive tasks and a scripted interview. During this second portion of the study, the participants were randomly placed into one of two conditions: an anger condition or a neutral condition.
“In the neutral induction, the experimenter behaved professionally and politely. In the anger induction, the experimenter was disorganized, dismissive, insulting, lost documents, provided only vague instructions, created unnecessary work, and interrupted the participant,” the researchers explained.
The participants then completed a short quiz about the film that contained bits of misinformation. For example, the participants were asked to respond to the question “What do Daniel and Julia sit on during their conversation when Julia drops her purse?” However, Julia never dropped her purse in the film.
To further induce feelings of anger, those in the anger condition then wrote about a time in their lives when they had been made angry. Those in the neutral condition, on the other hand, wrote about a time when they visited a museum.
Finally, the participants were given an 80-item test designed to assess how much they could accurately recall about the film and how much misinformation they had absorbed.
The researchers found that anger did not impair the ability to recognize details actually present in the film. However, those in the anger condition were more susceptible to misinformation than those in the neutral condition. In other words, angry participants were more likely to misattribute details from the initial quiz to what they had seen in the film.
The researchers also found that participants in the anger condition tended to be more confident in the accuracy of their memories. But among those participants, increased confidence was associated with decreased accuracy. Among those in the neutral condition, in contrast, increased confidence was associated with increased accuracy.
The findings highlight that “memory is not like a video camera,” Greenstein told PsyPost. “That finding is decades old, but studies continually show that the average person doesn’t know it in spite of this being one of thousands of studies replicating that finding.”
In addition, “anger doesn’t simply make someone’s memory worse,” he said. “Instead, it makes people more susceptible to the types of memory errors they were already making (because memory doesn’t work like a video camera.)”
As with all research, the new study comes with some limitations.
“This is a preliminary study,” Greenstein said. “It established what anger is doing to memory, but not how. So discovering the mechanisms for how (and eventually why) anger is impacting memory will be an important next step.”
“Just because something is a memory error doesn’t mean it’s bad,” he added. “Researchers, like myself, are interested in looking at whether people remember something true to their initial instance of remembering it, so any changes to memory from that instance are considered errors. However, any time that you learn something after the fact that is closer to reality than your memory was, anger can help make your memory more accurate.”
The study, “Anger Increases Susceptibility to Misinformation“, was authored by Michael Greenstein and Nancy Franklin.