Back in 2014, Supreme Court Justice Sonia Sotomayor dissented from the Court’s decision to uphold a ban on affirmative action at Michigan universities. Her minority opinion was greeted harshly, as MSNBC.com reported, criticized for being based on emotion rather than logic, which — so the criticism went — rendered her argument “legally illiterate and logically indefensible.”
The authors of a new paper in the journal Law and Human Behavior refer to this Sotomayor anecdote in their write-up, as it illustrates the point of their study perfectly: When women express anger during group deliberation, it ends up undermining their argument, and people are less likely to be influenced by their opinion. For men, on the other hand, the opposite is true. “These diverging consequences might result in women potentially having less influence on societally important decisions than men, such as jury verdicts,” write the authors, Jessica Salerno of Arizona State University and Liana Peter-Hagene of the University of Illinois at Chicago.
In the study, Salerno and Peter-Hagene rounded up about 200 students and gave them the gory details of a real trial: 2000’s R. v. Valevski, in which the prosecution claimed that a man slit his wife’s throat, thereby killing her. The defense, on the other hand, argued the victim was depressed and killed herself. In addition to written descriptions of the actual witness testimony, plus opening and closing statements, the researchers showed the study participants two photographs from the real crime scene. The materials presented were deliberately ambiguous, so that there was an equally valid argument for either verdict.
After reviewing the evidence, students were seated at computers, where they were told that they would be conversing in a chat room with other students at computer labs across campus who were participating in the same study. In reality, the chat room was pre-programmed. Before the mock-deliberation, students noted their verdict, and their confidence level about it. After the chat-room conversation, they again noted their confidence level about their original verdict.
But here’s the catch: Each chat had one dissenter, intentionally programmed to argue for the opposite verdict as the participant. For some study volunteers, this dissenter had a male name (JasonS), while others saw a female name (AliciaS); additionally, some study volunteers watched as the holdout expressed his or her opinion with anger, whereas others saw the dissenter express no emotion. In the anger condition, for example, the holdout’s argument was accompanied by phrases like “Seriously, this just makes me angry” or “Ok, this is getting really frustrating.”
When JasonS angrily argued for his dissenting opinion, the participants tended to lose confidence in their initial decision. Yet when AliciaS made the exact same angry comments, the participants gained confidence in their own opposing opinion. These results held true whether the participant was male or female.
As Tom Jacobs at Pacific Standard points out, the findings echo research published in 2008, in which the researchers found that men earn respect when expressing anger, whereas women lose respect when doing the same thing. One quick caveat: It’s true that this new study, conducted on college students, won’t necessarily translate exactly to real-world scenarios; this is a problem with most social psychology studies, of course. Still, taken together, both of these studies provide some empirical evidence for something many women have felt, even if they couldn’t exactly prove it. “Our results lend scientific support to a frequent claim voiced by women,” Salerno and Peter-Hagene write, even though this claim is “sometimes dismissed as paranoia.”