Which of these three do you think is more effective at creating Commitment: Anger, Calm or Happiness? In reading Eyal Winter’s book, Feeling Smart: Why Our Emotions Are More Rational Than We Think (PublicAffairs, Dec 2014), I came across an interesting research in psychology that describes the human condition. His book very amicably explains behavioral economics and game theory—how we behave when making decisions and choices on both rational and emotional levels.
In the book, Prof. Winter describes a particular experiment at the Federmann Center for the Study of Rationality, a version of the Dictator game in experimental economics, first developed by psychologist Daniel Kahneman (winner of the 2002 Nobel Prize in Economics).
In the game, one player is given a sum of money. Both players are told that the player holding the money (the Giver) has the option of sharing some of the money with the other player (the Receiver) or keeping it all for themselves. The Giver alone has the decision power on how much they will share, and how generous the will be.
The basic goal of such a game is to understand how much concern people have for their own well being over others, and how generous they behave in different situations. It changes with the norms of the society you are part of, and can also change with other stressors.
In this variation of the game, the groups of players were also told that they would be compensated if they received only a small amount from the Giver. However, the first group was told to receive compensation they would have to get angry and the amount was proportional to their anger level. The second group was told the compensation would be in meter to their level of happiness they expressed. The third group was simply told to keep calm. To test their degree of feelings, they were connected to skin conductivity measuring device similar to the electronic stress testers, even in some of today’s smartphones; and they were asked questions on their levels as well.
The findings? From figure 1 (from the book), you can see two sets of data, one on when the Giver was generous (High offers), and the other when they gave low offers. The two data sets were the instrumentation measures of stress levels (skin conductivity response, and heart rate).
What it says is that Anger creates the most noticeable physical signs of commitment, substantially much more than Happiness or Calm, in the immediate situation. On a secondary level because of the compensation model, they also create the reward. Per Prof. Winter:
Although anger is far less pleasant than happiness, it is much more effective in creating commitment in social situations. This may in turn mean that evolution selected for people whose brains were adept at expressing anger, thus making people angrier on the whole.
As a note, the word ‘commitment’ has multiple meanings to people, and the one here is used in a specific context: how much someone emotionally invests in the situation. It is a statement about how a person really becomes involved and, for that period of time, cares about the decision.
Prof. Winter adds:
We all have the capacity to recognize emotional states in others. Without this capacity we would be severely limited in our ability to interact socially. Our ability to reproduce would be curtailed if we were unaware of whether or not others found us attractive. Even our sheer physical survival, which to a great extent depends on our social interactions, would be jeopardized without an ability to read emotions in others. Our capacity to pick out emotions from the faces of others apparently developed quite early in the evolution of human cognitive abilities.
Think about this in a work situation where someone frequently gets angry and complains loudly when they don’t get their way. In my view, if you want your way, then getting angry seems to work, but I’d qualify that as a short-term outcome, without concern for the state of an ongoing relationship with the person. There are people who take those immediate results too close to heart as a ‘best practice’ and consider those results more important than long-term value. It’s rational to consider than doing this over and over with the same people over many encounters will lead us to conclude they lack empathy, or is an unpleasant and angry person. We know from political history anger does work very well, even when drawn out for a long time.
Until it doesn’t.
PUBLISHED: 3/09/2015. By Rawn Shah
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