Angry People Look for Rewards

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A study that has just come out has found that negative emotion that surround anger influences people to look for rewards, rather than focus on threats.

For people with negative emotions such as fear primarily focus on perceived threats and although anger is a negative emotion, feeling angry makes people want to seek rewards, a goal that is normally pursued by those feeling happy or excited.

Past research shows that emotion affects what people pay attention to. If a fearful or even an anxious person is offered a choice of a rewarding picture, or a threatening picture, they’ll spend more time looking at the threat than at the rewarding picture.

Nobody is clear whether those reactions occur because the emotions are positive or negative, or because of something else, says Brett Q. Ford of Boston College, who wrote the study with Maya Tamir, also of Boston College, and four other authors.

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She says, “Emotions can vary in what they make you want to do. Fear is associated with a motivation to avoid, whereas excitement is associated with a motivation to approach. It can make you want to seek out certain things, like rewards.”

Ford focused on anger for her study. She had participants write for 15 minutes about one of four memories in their past which included a time when they were angry, afraid, excited and happy, or felt little or no emotion. A five-minute piece of music reinforced whichever emotion the participant had been assigned.

She then had the participant examine two side-by-side pictures. An eye-tracking device monitored how much time they spent looking at each picture.

Angry people spent more time looking at the rewarding pictures which suggests that this kind of visual attention bias is related more to how an emotion motivates someone than whether it’s positive or negative. Looking at something is the first step before the thoughts and actions that follow, says Ford.

“Attention kicks off an entire string of events that can end up influencing behavior.”

The angry people were not the only ones that looked at the rewarding photos. People who felt happy and excited also looked more at the rewarding photos. What Ford noticed was the two groups might act differently. An angry person might be motivated to approach something in a confrontational or aggressive way, while a happy person might go for something they want in a nicer way by collaborating, being sociable and friendly. What researchers know is that angry people look for rewards.

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