Rage and reason: the psychology of the intuitive prosecutor

Authors: Julie H. Goldberg, UC Berkeley; Jennifer S. Lerner, Carnegie Mellon University; Philip E. Tetlock, The Ohio State University

Publication: European Journal of Social Psychology

Year: 1999

Focus Area: Decision Making, Emotion

Relevance: The effect of emotions on decision making can be moderated by social situations, suggesting that there may be specific methods to adjust the impact of emotions in certain decisions.

Summary: When angry, people display consistent biases in their decision making, including an increased tendency to blame individuals for problems, assume that unclear actions are hostile, and punish others for their mistakes. In this study, feelings of anger were elicited by asking subjects to watch a video in which a teenager is beaten by an adult. Afterwards, the participants were asked to judge four scenarios in an ostensibly unrelated set of questions.

  • When told that the adult in the first video had either escaped punishment, the viewers were more likely to make punitive judgments of the scenarios presented in the second half of the study. The authors suggest that this is a kind of moral compensation, making up for the lack of social order and justice in part one by enforcing it strongly in part two.
  • However, when they were told that the adult had been sufficiently punished, they were more evenhanded in their assessment of the scenarios in part two.
  • Although emotions (in this case, anger) can influence decisions, they do not always have an influence. The effect of anger was removed when people were told that justice had been served.

Author Abstract: This study explores the conditions under which experimentally primed anger influences both attributions of responsibility and the processes by which people make such attributions. Drawing on social functional theory, it was hypothesized that people are best thought of as `intuitive prosecutors’ who lower their thresholds for making attributions of harmful intent and recommending harsh punishment when they both witness a serious transgression of societal norms and believe that the transgressor escaped punishment. The data support the hypotheses. Anger primed by a serious crime ‘carried over’ to influence judgments of unrelated acts of harm only when the perpetrator of the crime went unpunished, notwithstanding the arousal of equally intense anger in conditions in which the perpetrator was appropriately punished or his fate was unknown. Participants in the perpetrator-unpunished condition also relied on simpler and more punitive attributional heuristics for inferring responsibility for harm.

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