WOMEN
10/16/2015 09:21 am ET

People Reward Angry Men But Punish Angry Women, Study Suggests

Research finally catches up to all of the frustrating anecdotal evidence.
Lambert via Getty Images

Academic studies can be fascinating... and totally confusing. So we decided to strip away all of the scientific jargon and break them down for you

The Background

In this week's Lenny Letter, Jennifer Lawrence described a scenario that many women can relate to: When she spoke her mind to a male co-worker, he replied, "Whoa! We're all on the same team here!" He was essentially calling her overly emotional and aggressive, a statement that left Lawrence unsettled. "All I hear and see all day are men speaking their opinions, and I give mine in the same exact manner, and you would have thought I had said something offensive," she wrote.

Stories like Lawrence's abound. Yahoo CEO Marissa Mayer's laser-like passion earned her the description "absurd in her obsession with detail"; Senator Claire McCaskill was branded "aggressive" rather than "lady-like" while competing in the 2012 election cycle; and Supreme Court Justice Sonia Sotomayer's minority dissent in Schuette v. Coalition to Defend Affirmative Action was discredited for being "overheated" and fueled by "emotion" in 2014.

These double-standards can be incredibly frustrating, especially in the absence of precise academic research to back up the mounting anecdotal evidence. Previous research suggests that women are not only stereotyped as overly emotional, but they're also perceived as less influential, competent and rational than men during group discussions. And women are particularly punished for behaving dominantly

To investigate this dynamic, researchers from Arizona State University and the University of Illinois at Chicago conducted a study to see how people reacted to women versus men who expressed anger in a group setting.

The Setup

The researchers gathered 210 undergraduate students to participate in a computerized mock-jury simulation that would take place over an instant messenger program. Participants were told that they'd be randomly assigned to virtual groups of six-person "juries" with other people in the study. They were first presented with evidence from a real-life murder trial and then asked to create a username for the jury chat room where they would "deliberate with their group until they reached a unanimous verdict." They then reported their verdict and confidence in their decision before deliberation began.

The chat room, however, was completely scripted based on that initial verdict given by each participant. In each chat, four of the other "jurors" would agree with the participant's verdict and one "juror" would disagree -- the researchers called this one "the holdout juror." The holdout juror was either a man (Jason) or a woman (Alicia). In the simulation, the holdout would either use no emotion or use "clear expressions of anger," like "seriously, this just makes me angry" and "OK, this is getting really frustrating," as well words in all capital letters. Over the course of the discussion, one of the "jurors" would switch their verdict to align with the holdout's.

After the discussion was over, participants reported their final verdicts and how confident they were in their decision. They also completed a survey about how they perceived their co-jurors: how emotional, angry, trustworthy, influential, likable, competent, credible, persuasive and rational they felt the others were.

The Findings

After analyzing the simulation, the researchers found that women's anger worked against them, while men's anger served as a "powerful" tool of persuasion. When the holdout was a male who expressed anger, participants significantly doubted their own opinion, even when they were in the majority. But if the holdout was a woman who expressed anger, she actually had less influence over participants -- so much so that it was the only scenario in the study in which participants became more confident in their own opinion that opposed that of the woman.

The post-simulation perception surveys shed some light as to why they found this dynamic. The male and female holdouts used the same exact typed language, so participants couldn't judge potential gender differences in communication style or facial expression. Even so, perception biases still cropped up. When the man was perceived as emotional, he was considered more credible for getting angry. But when the woman was perceived as emotional, participants became more sure of their own opinion, even if they considered the woman credible. As the researchers put it: "When a woman expresses anger, this does not just make her seem less credible, but seems to make assessing her credibility irrelevant."

The Takeaway

According to the researchers, these findings demonstrate that "social influence is determined, in part, by the interactive effect between what emotion is expressed and by whom." This could help contextualize many of the gendered narratives we tend to hear -- like, how Mayer's precise leadership has been called "robotic, stuck up and absurd," while Steve Jobs' comparably rigorous management style has been touted as admirably "meticulous." 

It's unclear how generalizable these findings are or if they'll be able to be replicated. But adding this study to the many others suggesting similarly prejudiced gender dynamics might help assuage women's frustrations.

For now, dear women of the world, the next time someone makes you feel like you're being overly sensitive or paranoid, just know that you have plenty of reason to be angry. 

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