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Angering Your Opponent Is a Good Strategy—Sometimes

By Gemma Tarlach
Jan 13, 2014 8:00 PMMay 21, 2019 4:33 PM
Maybe you <span bold='true'>will</span> like it when I'm angry! Image by Eneas de Troya via Flickr


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Ask any character from the bloody schemefest Game of Thrones: getting your adversary riled up at the right moment can give you the upper hand. Anger your opponent at an inopportune time, however, and the ploy can backfire.

Humans understand how anger in another can influence their performance, for better or worse, and use the emotion strategically against competitors, new research confirms.

Angered by Admin

Researchers recruited 260 undergraduate males and pitted them against each other in one-on-one games. One of the games was strength-based, the other required mental focus.

Before the start of the games, one of the participants in each pair, chosen at random, was given the option to anger his opponent by assigning a certain number of minutes of boring busywork following the test (though that individual was informed of how much time he’d spend doing “boring administrative work” before the competition began).

Researchers predicted that anger would enhance performance in the strength tests, and that participants would choose not to upset their opponents so as not to give them an advantage. In the mental task-based tests, however, researchers predicted that participants would try to anger competitors, and that the emotion would impair their mental acumen.

Using Anger Wisely

The results of the trials will not surprise anyone who has flustered a playground adversary with “yo’ mama” insults.

Employing a number of controls, researchers found that anger did indeed improve the performance of participants in the strength test. In the mental focus test, however, anger reduced performance. Participants given the option to anger their opponent chose to do so significantly more in the mental test than the strength test, demonstrating an attempt at strategic manipulation of competitors’ emotions.

The strategic anger study, which appears in today’s Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, apparently did not follow up with participants to ask why they chose to anger their opponents (or to refrain from doing so), so the actual thought process behind the strategy remains uncertain.

And while the research provides evidence of what we’ve always suspected in competitive environments, it still doesn’t explain what Internet trolls hope to gain by posting all those tedious comments.

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