Anger shares a link with deception. Researchers recently investigated how anger can impact ethical decision making. Their laboratory research study investigated how feeling incidental anger, i.e. anger provoked from an unrelated source, can promote deception. Their study also considered how empathy plays a role in the link between anger and ethical decision making.

Anger ranks as one of the most frequently experienced emotions in the workplace. Deception permeates many aspects of organizational life, too. Besides experiencing anger generally in the workplace, it commonly occurs in business negotiations. Many psychological factors, e.g. power, trust, feelings of inequity, have been shown to influence deception. But, no research had investigated a link between feeling angry and the psychology of deception. This post summarizes and comments about a recent investigation which established a link between feeling angry and deception and therefore filled that gap.

Who Should Read This Post and Why. Lawyers, judges, and leaders of private and public legal services organizations, associations, and systems will want to read this post. Anger, a normal emotion, frequently visits those who practice or consume legal services. A casual reading of lawyer disciplinary cases reveals that lawyers’ failure to manage their anger can result in disciplinary proceedings and sometimes violators getting suspended from practice or disbarred. Lawyer anger implicates clients, their rights and interests, the integrity of the profession and also the public trust. This post discusses some new research which adds to the relevance and importance of the topic of anger and lawyers: deception and serving self-interest.

Contents. The first three parts discuss the research background of this first-of-its kind investigation of anger and deception. This involves an overview of direct anger and indirect anger; emotion and ethical decision-making; and the connection between empathy, indirect anger, and ethical decision-making. The next two parts consider the research purpose, the investigation’s procedure, and results with discussion. The final part discusses the importance raised by application of the results to lawyers and leaders of the legal profession and how emotional intelligence can perhaps help mitigate the effects of incidental anger and prevent deception. The post closes with a collection of links to related information on Psycholawlogy and other references.

Research Background – Anger: Direct & Indirect. Anger, a normal emotion, visits us two ways. First, another person blocks a goal, interrupts or treats us unfairly, or treats us unjustly. These experiences can trigger our anger. Once angered, we may want to confront, fight, or punish the wrongdoer who treated us unfairly or got in our way. Anger can also occur indirectly.

Indirect anger involves carrying feelings from one interaction to another, unrelated interaction. A co-worker may insult us. The anger we feel does not resolve. It may also influence our interactions with others in a completely unrelated setting. Researchers call these carry-over feelings “incidental emotions”. Our thoughts and feelings from one anger experience can shape our perceptions of subsequent, unrelated situations.

Research Background – Deception & Emotion and Ethical Decision-Making. Deceivers tell lies which advance their interests at the expense of another. “Self-serving lies represent a quintessential form of unethical behavior.” The researchers described the deception process as one of the deceiver navigating the tension between serving self-interests and harming others. A weighing of potential costs and benefits occurs. Emotions, including anger, can impact these calculations. The authors investigated how anger may decrease concern for others and tip the scales towards serving self-interest at their expense.

Angry people have heightened self-interest. Anger promotes a focus on reward. This results in increased attention toward self-interest. Research also shows that anger may shift attention from caring about others. The authors noted research has shown that anger promotes punishment, a desire to retaliate, and the tendency to rely on stereotypes. The authors hypothesized that such anger-related lowering of concern for others reflects lower empathy. Lower empathy, they believed, promotes self-serving deception.

Emotions play a role in ethical decision-making. Research dating back two decades has shown that emotions occur as a result of ethical decision-making. More recent work, however, has suggested that emotions can shift beliefs and behavior in this context. Envy, guilt, shame, and anxiety can invoke malevolent intentions, and have been shown to impact and shape ethical decision-making. But, the authors noted that “Surprisingly, prior work has overlooked the potential link between feeling anger and ethical decision-making.” People who deceive have greater concern for their self-interest and lower concern, i.e. empathy, for others.

Research Background – Incidental Anger, Empathy, and Self-Serving Deception. Considering the research background noted above, the investigators developed and tested this thesis: incidental anger promotes the use of self-serving deception. Research has shown that deceivers care more about serving their own self-interest than having concern for others. The more care that they show for their own interests raises the probability that a deceiver will tell bigger lies. But, people who have lower concern for themselves and who have higher concern for others are, according to the authors, more likely to tell the truth. Having the capacity to care for others’ welfare describes empathy.

The authors suggested that empathy, the capacity to feel emotional concern about the welfare of another, influences unethical behavior. When a person lacks empathy, he or she has less concern about how actions impact another person. “As a result, less empathetic people are more likely to behave unethically because they focus more on the rewards for themselves and pay less attention to the costs for others.”

Angry people focus more on rewards for themselves. With that orientation, they pay less attention to the costs of their behaviors on others. Prior research noted by the authors suggests that anger facilitates self-interest. Angry people blame others for whatever violation or affront they experience. It energizes people to blame others. Anger serves a function. It can propel one to attain salient, blocked goals. This occurs, research shows, because it can cause us to neglect other goals, including, suggest the researchers, the goal to engage in ethical behavior.

A summary of the researchers’ thesis and argument formed by considering the above research background is this: Angry people who deceive others have reduced empathy and, coupled with their motivation to pursue self-interest and attain their blocked goals, this “calculus of deception” makes them more likely to behave unethically.

Research Study Purpose and Procedure. The four laboratory studies which comprise this exploration of the relationship between incidental anger and deception utilized university students as participants. The researchers induced anger in a variety of creative ways, including manipulating feedback about an essay and recommendations about a beverage with an unpleasant taste. Also,one study considered another negative emotion, sadness, and compared how it related to deception. A final study considered the effects of financial incentive and how it impacts the decision to deceive.

Incidental Anger – Deception Investigation Results & Discussion. Without detailing the experimental manipulations across the four research studies in this investigation, and the investigators’ comments about limitations of their study and future paths for continued research, this part summarizes and discusses the results.

A brief summary provided by the authors states “Across all four studies, we find that incidental anger promotes self-interested deception – even when the target of deception is unrelated to why they are angry.” They add “Compared to when people feel neutral emotion, when people feel angry, they are more likely to engage in deception to pursue self-interested goals, because they care less about how their actions affect others.” Next, the results:

  • Compared to neutral people, angry people were more likely to engage in self-serving deception;
  • Angry people showed lower levels of empathy…they cared less about others and showed greatly likelihood to engage in deception;
  • Anger has a unique influence on deception compared to another negative-valenced emotion, i.e. sadness; incidental anger has a unique influence on deception, sadness does not;
  • Financial incentives moderate the relationship between anger and deception, i.e. when feeling angry, a person will more likely pursue self-interests by deceiving others when the deceives gets a financial benefit.

This laboratory experiment produced an important conclusion: “Anger promotes deception. When individuals feel angry, they are  more likely to deceive others.” The authors also noted that, across their four studies, “individuals who experience incidental anger are more likely to deceive a counterpart than those in a neutral state.” This research adds to the body of science about emotions and ethical behavior because it shows that anger reduces empathy. Such empathy-impaired people care less about the interests of others and lack concern for the effects of the harmful consequences of their self-interested actions to avenge their self-perceived wrongs or attempt to adapt to the effects of blocked goals.

In a more applied sense – negotiation – the authors commented that their results identified an important drawback to expressing anger to gain concessions. Angry negotiators will likely induce anger in their counterparts. The authors state “In light of our findings, we postulate that expressing anger will increase the likelihood that a counterpart will engage in deception. This suggests that negotiators should be particularly wary of employing strategic displays of anger.”

Anger – Deception Link: Emotional Intelligence Implications for Lawyers and Legal Leadership. The research featured in this post concerned incidental anger. Contrasted with direct anger, incidental anger involves feelings of anger related to one experience carried over to another, completely unrelated situation. Across the four studies noted, the researchers showed that incidental anger promotes deception. It happens by way of reduced empathy and occurs when the deceive can derive financial benefits. They closed their article by stating “We suspect that the link between directed anger and deception will be even greater.”

This experimental laboratory investigation of anger and deception did not concern lawyers or the legal profession. While the authors did not not comment about emotional intelligence and incidental emotion, others have. The references include that information. For lawyers and legal leaders, their final comment – “We urge leaders, managers, and employees to recognize that, in our angry moments, we may lose our moral compass” – implicates emotional intelligence, and merits special attention of lawyers and their leaders of the following comments.

Legal work involves anger at times. Many people or situations can generate anger. Clients, judges, adversary lawyers, colleagues, coworkers, and others play diverse roles in creating a wide range of negative feelings including those related to threatened survival, blocked goals, or hurt. Even a casual reading of lawyer discipline cases shows how unregulated emotion and self-serving deception share connections with lapses of professional conduct and breaches of lawyer and judge codes or rules. Anger can reduce empathy, a core aspect of professionalism. With legal competence, empathy equips a lawyer to provide to clients the high quality legal services which they rightly expect and deserve. The research featured in this post shows that anger can lead to self-serving deception when the deceiver obtains a financial benefit. Emotional intelligence, i.e. emotion regulation and anger management, can play an important role in fostering “smart” lawyering, i.e. providing your best professional legal service competently and in an emotionally sensitive manner. How?

The 2015 review article about emotion and decision-making by Lerner and associates referenced below discusses how emotional intelligence can help mitigate the effects of incidental emotions. Emerging research shows that those higher in emotional intelligence ability can better manage incidental emotions. These “smarter” people can correctly identify the circumstances which caused their emotions, and screen or better manage the potential impact from incidental emotions. In other words, applying these principles in the legal services realm means that more emotionally intelligent lawyers, can pre-empt the potential carryover effect of deception from incidental anger. But, for many lawyers higher emotional intelligence does not occur naturally. Developing emotional intelligence requires education, learning, and practice. For lawyers and their leaders, this means having a belief mindset and putting forth serious and sustained effort plus an investment of personal time, financial resources, and commitment.

Lawyer professional responsibility must rank always as the first and most important consideration in providing legal advice and service. Moving beyond the basics, lawyers and their leaders should realize that feelings and emotions are normal and part of life and life in the practice of law. Further, they will need to investigate and get educated about the concepts and science of emotional intelligence, assessments of emotional intelligence, workshops, training, and coaching.

Incidental anger, reduced empathy, and self-serving deception implicate a need for having high emotional intelligence in the practice of law. Lawyers can become more aware of their emotions and the emotions involved in their interpersonal relationships in the practice of law. Assertiveness, not aggression, plays a role in more emotionally intelligent lawyering. As an ability, lawyers who implement a plan can develop higher levels of emotional intelligence. To start, those having a mindset involving belief in possibilities for increased awareness, development, and change will launch one successfully. For additional information about these and related strategic and tactical law practice concepts, see these selected posts of Psycholawlogy:

[Trial] Lawyers and Emotional Intelligence: How Does Emotion-Understanding Ability Relate to Incidental Anxiety and Decisions Involving Risk? (including links to more than 10 other related posts on Psycholawlogy)

Emotional Intelligence Emotion Regulation Ability Helps You [Lawyers] Interact With Others More Effectively

The Importance of Emotional Intelligence as a Factor in the Success and Professional Development of In-House Counsel

Emotionally Intelligent Assertiveness – A Top 5 EQi 2.0 Emotional Intelligence Lawyer Work Success Factor

Elite Performance [Legal] Organizations & Tailored Emotional Intelligence Interventions

Beliefs About Self, Change, and Emotional Intelligence Ability

Unfortunately, many clients engage a lawyer who is or who becomes an angry Pinocchio. All clients want and deserve a caring, competent, empathetic, emotionally intelligent lawyer and counselor who navigates the legal terrain with a moral compass and who does not let incidental emotion – anger – take their professional service off course.

Thank You.  Thank you very much. Dan DeFoe JD MS – Adlitem Solutions | Organization Development for Professional Services Firms and the Legal Profession: People. Projects. Practices |Web – | Email: | Blog – | Services – Organization Development Practitioner combining and leveraging 25+ years of diverse legal experience, 7+ years of allied health training and work experience, a Master of Science in Organizational Development Psychology, and educationally qualified or earned certifications in industry-leading normal (Myers-Briggs MBTI) and special business (Hogan Assessments) personality; ability (MSCEIT) and self-report (EQi 2.0 [derived from Bar-On model]) emotional intelligence; leadership (Certified Intentional Leadership Coach); and stress management assessment and tools (ARSENAL best practices system for stress resilient emotional intelligence) to partner with client organizations, their leaders, and member to discover needs and opportunities for growth and to design, develop, deliver, and evaluate custom interventions for individual, team, project, or organizational solutions. | Mission:  “America’s leading resource for normal personality and emotional intelligence assessments, and related coaching, continuing education programs, training, and workshops for judges, lawyers, law schools, bar associations, healthcare, medical, and other professional services providers and their organizations and leaders.”  Please visit Adlitem Solutions and Psycholawlogy again soon. Thank you very much.

Complimentary Assessment: Contact me via email at to arrange a time for a no obligation discussion and assessment of your firm’s or firm members’ interests or needs regarding emotional intelligence workshops, training, continuing education, or coaching. See this related post at Psycholawlogy – Emotional Intelligence Memo to Management: EI as a Buffer of [Lawyer] Stress in the Developmental Job Experience – for more information about taking first steps.

Visit Psycholawlogy using this link, and access posts about the ability-based emotional intelligence model as measured by the MSCEIT emotional intelligence assessment.

Article Source: Yip, J. A., & Schweitzer, M. E. (2016). Mad and misleading: Incidental anger promotes deception. Organizational Behavior and Human Decision Processes137, 207-217 (article copy currently available—Schweitzer-(2016)_1.pdf here)

Additional Resources: Côté, S. (2014). Emotional intelligence in organizations. Annu. Rev. Organ. Psychol. Organ. Behav.1(1), 459-488 (copy currently available here); Lerner, J. S., Li, Y., Valdesolo, P., & Kassam, K. S. (2015). Emotion and decision making. Annual Review of Psychology66:799-823  (copy currently available here);

Image Credits: Angry face here | Pinocchio here | Anger frontal view here | Moral compass here

Dan DeFoe

Owner and Lead consultant at Adlitem Solutions
I'm an attorney with 20+ years of experience and have an MS degree in organizational development psychology. I provide normal personality and emotional intelligence assessments, assessment interpretation and feedback, and professional development planning and training activities for lawyers, judges, other legal services providers, and their organizations.

Comments are closed.