Wharton's Maurice Schweitzer and Jeremy Yip discuss their research on the link between anger and deception.

Have you ever felt so angry about a specific incident that you couldn’t stop your negative feelings from spilling over into some unrelated aspect of your life? If the answer is yes, then you are far from alone. A study from Maurice Schweitzer, Wharton professor of operations, information and decisions, and Wharton lecturer and research scholar Jeremy Yip shows that anger can influence people in organizations to lie or behave deceptively in areas that have nothing to do with the original conflict.

Their paper, “Mad and Misleading: Incidental Anger Promotes Deception,” has intriguing implications for the workplace, where unaddressed anger can simmer into bigger problems for a company and its employees. Schweitzer and Yip recently spoke to Knowledge at Wharton about their findings.

An edited transcript of the conversation follows.

Knowledge at Wharton: Please give us an overview of your research.

Jeremy Yip: Our work establishes this link between feeling angry and deceiving others. Deception is a common behavior that occurs in organizations and poses a significant challenge in a variety of interpersonal interactions. For example, in job interviews, candidates may provide misleading statements in order to create a positive impression. In negotiations, negotiators will lie about their bottom line in order to claim more value.

What we investigated here was whether incidental anger — anger that’s triggered by an unrelated situation — can promote the use of deception. What we found was that people who feel angry are more likely to lie to others. We also find that when people are angry, they become less concerned about how their actions impact others. This disinhibits them to engage in self-serving deception.

Knowledge at Wharton: One of the interesting ideas in the study is that there is this free-floating anger from something else that gets transferred to another situation. Is that right?

Maurice Schweitzer: Yeah, that’s a really important point. What we study is what’s called incidental anger — anger that’s triggered by some unrelated event. You might have had an argument with your spouse and then have a meeting at work. Or you might have had a disagreement with one partner and end up meeting with a different partner. If the situation is completely unrelated, that anger should not influence our behavior. But we find that it actually does. This anger bleeds into this unrelated situation. We become more likely to engage in deception just because we were angry before, and that anger still influences and guides our behavior.

“People who feel angry are more likely to lie to others.” –Jeremy Yip

Knowledge at Wharton: Why does it lead to deception and not just hostility?

Schweitzer: What we found is that the anger, as Jeremy was explaining, disinhibits us. We become less empathetic, so we care less about other people in general. We’re now more free or liberated to pursue our self-interests. Across our studies, we find that when people feel anger, they’re really less concerned about other people. They’re not interested in retaliation or randomly harming other people. It’s really just a diminished concern for others, and the pursuit of self-interest now just gets carried away. It’s no longer checked by our empathy for others. That’s how we usually operate. When we’re feeling angry, we just care less about others. And what we find is that now the deception becomes much more likely to occur.

Knowledge at Wharton: What were the key takeaways from this study?

Yip: In our investigation, we focused on self-serving deception. These are lies that advantage the liar at the expense of a target. When people are telling self-serving lies, they’re often engaging in this calculus between what are the costs and benefits for themselves, but also what are the costs and benefits for others. What we find is that anger influences these calculations, where angry people become more focused on the benefits to themselves and discount the harm that they may cause others. That leads them to engage in deception.

Our key findings are that when you feel angry, even when it’s triggered by an unrelated situation, you’re more likely to lie. We also find, as Maurice mentioned, that angry people are less empathetic. And that disinhibits them to engage in self-interested behavior such as lying. We also found that the influence of anger on deception is unique to anger, and not to just any negative emotion. We contrasted the influence of anger with the influence of sadness on deception, and we actually found that only anger predicted deceptive behavior.

Knowledge at Wharton: I think of deception as something you precalculate, as opposed to an immediate reaction. But anger is an emotion that would make someone act quickly without thinking, so there’s a little disconnect there for me. How did that come out in your research? I know you did four studies to come up with your conclusions, right?

Schweitzer: That’s right. We did a series of studies, and in all these studies we find the same pattern. This anger is triggered by an unrelated event. You get very negative feedback or watch something that’s very disturbing. Across several different inductions, we find that this anger that’s triggered immediately does bleed into this somewhat more strategic behavior. That is, it changes our calculus. The key idea is we just become less empathetic. We care less about others, and we’re more focused on our self-interest. That narrowed focus is what guides us to exhibit this self-interested behavior, which in our case was deception. It’s unethical, but it’s also advancing our self-interest at the expense of others.

Knowledge at Wharton: It’s easy to see how that would apply in so many areas of life, politics, world relations and everything else. But in the workplace, what are the implications? And is there anything that people can do about this?

Yip: Well, we urge leaders, managers and employees to recognize that in our angry moments, we may lose our moral compass. We suggest that managers pay close attention to monitoring their employees when they notice that they’re angry. Because angry employees are more likely to cheat.

Knowledge at Wharton: Is there a propensity now in someone who is angry to do something that isn’t going good for the organization?

Schweitzer: Yes. I think as Jeremy’s pointing out, it’s important for us to recognize it’s true for us. That is, our own moral compass becomes less clearly pointed north when we feel angry. And it’s true for others. That is, other people are going to behave more strategically and in a more self-interested way and a less ethical way when they’re feeling angry. Again, it could be some unrelated trigger that has made them feel that way.

Knowledge at Wharton: Are you suggesting that there’s a benefit to developing some kind of a self-awareness in people that will benefit the organization?

Yip: I think the goal is to make employees themselves aware of their inclinations when they are feeling angry. Deception conceptualizes a cognitive process. What we’re showing here is how emotions can have a profound influence on that process. But we also want to urge leaders and managers to recognize this behavior in their employees and perhaps intervene in that. There’s other related research that shows that when people become aware that their emotions are incidental or irrelevant, that can also diminish the effects of that emotion on behavior.

“If the situation is completely unrelated, that anger should not influence our behavior. But we find that it actually does.” –Maurice Schweitzer

Knowledge at Wharton: What surprises came out your research?

Yip: We contrasted angry people with neutral people when there was an incentive that was present and when there was an incentive that was absent. What we found was that we were able to disentangle the motive to harm others from the motive to pursue the self-interest. So, when people are angry, they’re not being punitive and harming anyone around them. Instead, what we’re finding is that when people are angry, that anger curtails empathy. And that leads to more self-interested behavior. In this case, self-serving lies.

Knowledge at Wharton: What sets this research apart from other research in these areas?

Schweitzer: One key idea here is this link between emotion and cognition. How we feel, even if it’s unrelated to the current situation, influences how we think and how we act. In this case, we’re linking anger with deceptive, unethical behavior. This is the first work to do that. We often feel angry in the workplace. We often feel angry when we’re in a conflict with somebody else. And our work is the first to demonstrate that when we feel anger, it could actually lead us to engage in underhanded and more self-interested behavior in ways that we might not normally condone. And certainly as an organization, we should be highly aware of.

Knowledge at Wharton: It suggests that conflict-resolution interventions and courses would benefit an organization in a couple of ways. It’s not just that you have less conflict and maybe more cooperation, but also you could curtail some of the deception that could come out of the conflict.

Schweitzer: Right, absolutely. We should recognize that the feelings that others have are going to guide their behavior in predictable ways, and we should be sensitive to that. Jeremy mentioned that recognizing emotions might help diminish their effects. But we should also be broadly aware that how we’re feeling is likely to influence how we think and behave. In some cases, we might be able to curtail unethical behavior by muting that anger.

It’s not that when we’re feeling angry, we want to retaliate against other people or pay it forward. Somebody was angry at me or somebody blocked my goal, and I want to go take it out on somebody else. That’s not what we observed. What we found was that people just became much more self-interested, self-serving, and they became less constrained by concern for others in advancing their own goals. I think that’s one of the things that I think was most surprising about this work.

Knowledge at Wharton: Where will you take this research next?

Yip: These findings have informed some of our current work investigating the relationship between anger and perspective-taking. What we’re beginning to find that’s consistent with some of the work that we’ve just discussed is that when people feel angry, they become more egocentric. Perspective-taking is a different type of cognitive process where people adopt another person’s viewpoint in the situation. We are learning that people who feel angry tend to anchor on their own viewpoint and not adjust to or accommodate other people’s viewpoints.