People who are falsely accused tend to get angry–which makes others believe that they are indeed guilty. Those are the highly frustrating results of a new study from researchers at Harvard. If you’re an employer, you need to watch out for your own instincts, which could lead you to assume an innocent person has done something wrong. And, importantly, you should use this information to temper your own reactions if you’re ever falsely accused yourself.
In a study titled “Anger Damns the Innocent,” researchers from Harvard Business School and the University of Toronto conducted six studies to determine how people react to being falsely accused, and how those reactions affect others’ perceptions of their guilt or innocence. In one experiment, they randomly assigned 230 subjects to either an easy or difficult editing task and told them they’d be paid a $2 bonus for doing it correctly. The easy task, which most participants got right, was to capitalize the first and last letters of every paragraph in the text. The difficult task, which most got wrong, was to find and remove every adverb in the text. After they were done, all participants got the same message, ostensibly from a research assistant saying their answer was believed to be wrong, indicating that they hadn’t been paying proper attention and therefore the $2 bonus might be withheld.
For most of those who’d done the easy task, this was a false accusation, whereas it was basically true for those who’d had to do the hard task. Those who were falsely accused reported feeling angrier, and to claim they were being unfairly assessed. I think even without a study, most of us would recognize this as a normal human reaction–when we are accused of something we didn’t do, we get really peeved. I still remember the hissy fit I pitched in my veterinarian’s office when I was accused of–and billed for–being a no-show at an appointment I had actually rescheduled.
But here’s the problem. While getting ticked off is a normal human reaction to a false accusation, it will make others believe you are guilty. The researchers tested this across four studies. In the first three, participants watched clips from a television show called Judge Faith, or read a description of a courtroom proceeding, or an account of a man accused of cheating on his girlfriend, or a man accused of stealing from his employer. In each case, they got to see or read about the accused person’s reaction. Every time, participants judged those who reacted angrily as being guiltier than those who reacted with calm. The only people who seemed guiltier to these subjects were those who pleaded the fifth in court and refused to say anything at all.
Even the pros get it wrong
Then they performed a similar experiment on 136 professionals whose jobs ought to give them some insight into guilt and innocence–law enforcement professionals, fraud investigators, lawyers, and similar professions. Even they thought those who reacted with anger–and those who refused to answer questions at all–were likely to be guilty. They thought those who reacted calmly were most likely to be innocent.
It’s a sad state of affairs when even trained professionals think reacting calmly to an accusation makes you innocent and reacting angrily makes you guilty, when the opposite is likely to be true. But what can you do about it?
For starters, when you ask an employee–or anyone else–if they’ve done something wrong and they respond with anger, don’t assume that they did it. “We find that such anger is an invalid cue of guilt and is instead a valid cue of innocence,” the researchers write. Most people–even professionals whose jobs require them to parse the guilty from the innocent–use emotional cues to determine whether someone is guilty. More often than not, following these emotional cues will lead you to the wrong conclusion. This tallies with existing literature, which suggests that most people are really bad at knowing whether someone is lying or telling the truth.
There’s a small audience of Inc.com readers who receive a daily text from me with a self-care or motivational micro-challenge or idea. Often they text me back and we wind up in an ongoing conversation. (Interested in joining? You can learn more here.) Some of them have told me about times when they were accused of something they didn’t do, and how hard it is to stay calm when that happens.
So next time you accuse someone of doing something wrong and they blow their stack, give that person the benefit of the doubt. And if you’re falsely accused yourself, whatever else you do, try not to react with anger. It will just make people think you’re guilty.