Anger and shame as determinants of perceived competence

Shlomo Hareli, Nathan Berkovitch, Liat Livnat, Shlomo David
Published Online:
05 Feb 2014
Volume/Issue No:
Volume 48 Issue 6

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Emotions are complex signals conveying a multitude of “messages” concomitantly. This idea is examined within the context of competence inferences drawn from the emotional expressions of another individual. In two studies, participants assuming the role of patients took part in a simulated medical consultation. They encountered a physician who had either a high or a standard professional status, and who responded with anger, shame, or emotional neutrality when asked to clarify the advice he dispensed. While a display of anger did not affect perceived competence, shame made the physician appear less competent. Three types of signals conveyed by the emotions were responsible for these effects: the physician's decisiveness and control over the situation, and the extent to which he felt professionally devalued by the patient's request, mediated the effects of the emotions on perceived competence. A priori information about the physician's professional status had little effect on the perception of competence. The research exemplifies the richness of information contained in emotions, and the complex way in which it allows observers to construe an impression of the expresser.

Las emociones son señales complejas que transmiten una multitud de “mensajes” de manera concomitante. Se examina esta idea dentro del contexto de las inferencias de competencia elaboradas a partir de las expresiones emocionales de otro individuo. En dos estudios, los participantes adoptaron el papel de pacientes y participaron en una consulta médica simulada. Se encontraron con un médico que tenía un prestigio profesional alto o regular, y quien respondió con enojo, vergüenza o neutralidad emocional cuando se le pidió que aclarara las indicaciones que había dado. Mientras que una manifestación de enojo no afectó la competencia percibida, la vergüenza hizo que el médico pareciera menos competente. Tres tipos de señales que las emociones transmitieron fueron responsables de estos efectos: la determinación y control del médico sobre la situación, y el grado en que se sintió devaluado en lo profesional por la petición del paciente mediaron los efectos de las emociones sobre la competencia percibida. La información a priori sobre el prestigio profesional del médico tuvo poco efecto sobre la percepción de competencia. La investigación ejemplifica la riqueza de la información contenida en las emociones y la compleja forma en la cual permiten a los observadores colegir una impresión del emisor.

Les émotions sont des signaux complexes qui transmettent une multitude de « messages » concomitants. Cette hypothèse est examinée dans le contexte des inférences induites par les expressions émotionnelles d'un autre individu. Dans deux études, les participants jouant le rôle de patients ont pris part à une simulation de consultation médicale. Ils ont rencontré un médecin qui présentait un statut professionnel élevé ou conventionnel, et qui répondait avec colère, honte ou neutralité, lorsque invité à clarifier les avis qu'il dispensait. Alors que la colère n'affecte pas la perception de la compétence, la honte fait apparaître le médecin moins compétent. Trois types de signaux transmis par les émotions sont responsables de ces effets: la capacité décisionnelle du médecin, son contrôle de la situation et la limite à laquelle il est déprécié par le patient quant à ses aptitudes professionnelles. Ces signaux déterminent ainsi l'effet des émotions sur la perception de compétence. A priori, l'information sur le statut professionnel du médecin a peu d'effet sur une telle perception. La recherche montre la richesse de l'information contenue dans les émotions ainsi que la voie complexe par laquelle elle influence les observateurs à se construire une impression de ceux qui les manifestent.

Emotional expressions, such as anger, sadness, or guilt are often perceived as indicative of expressers‘ competence. For example, Tiedens (2001) showed that a political leader was perceived as more competent when explaining a failure or delivering a speech in an angry tone than in a sad one. It has been suggested that these emotions affect perceptions of competence by providing information about expressers’ control over the circumstances that caused the outcome evoking the emotion. Perceived control is an antecedent to judgements of a person's responsibility for the outcome in question (Tiedens, Ellsworth, & Mesquita, 2000; Weiner, 1986). Specifically, according to Tiedens et al. (2000), for example, within the context of failure, anger expressed by the failing person communicates that control over the situation—and therefore responsibility for failure—lies outside the expresser. Sadness, in contrast, signals that no one controlled the situation, while guilt signals that the failing person controlled the circumstances causing failure, and hence is responsible for the failure itself. When one's failure either is the result of circumstances under one's control or is caused by external circumstances, this suggests that one has low competence. In contrast, control over the circumstances that bring about success suggests high competence.

Emotions, however, are complex signals that potentially convey a multitude of different messages about the expresser and/or the situation (Hareli & Hess, 2012; Kirouac & Hess, 1999; Scherer & Grandjean, 2008). Accordingly, the emotions of a given person may tell observers more than whether the expresser was in control of a given achievement and responsible for it. We further suggest that some of these additional “messages” contained in emotional expressions can also impinge on the person's perceived competence. Further, certain emotions can even include different types of information that contradict one another in terms of what they reflect about the person's competence. Finally, not only achievement‐related emotions reflect competence, but also emotions that are responses to the observer's behaviour, as explored in the present context.

Two messages contained in emotions, which are expected to have an impact on perceived competence, are perceived decisiveness and a sense of devaluation. Prior research suggests that people's emotions reflect how decisive and, consequently, how competent they are. Specifically, discrete emotions such as anger or happiness increase perceived decisiveness, relative to ambivalent emotions. Higher levels of decisiveness increased perceived competence (Rothman & Wiesenfeld, 2007). We assert that specific emotions also differ in regard to the levels of decisiveness they are associated with and hence lead to differences in perceived competence levels. This paper focuses on anger and shame, as these emotions are expected to lead to contrasting levels of perceived decisiveness. Specifically, anger is expected to signal a high level of decisiveness, whereas shame indicates a low level. This is because anger is associated with assertiveness (Delamater & McNamara, 1987; De Rivera, 1977), instrumentality (Mikulincer, 1998) and toughness (Clark, Pataki, & Carver, 1996; Sinaceur & Tiedens, 2006). In contrast, shame is associated with self‐doubt (Tangney, 1996). Since decisiveness is associated with competence (Rothman & Wiesenfeld, 2007), expressions of anger should make the expresser appear more competent than expressions of shame. Accordingly, it is expected that perceived decisiveness should mediate the differential effect that expressions of anger and shame have on perceived competence.

When people feel devalued, they often experience feelings of anger and shame (Rodriguez Mosquera, Fischer, Manstead, & Zaalberg, 2008; Rodriguez Mosquera, Manstead, & Fischer, 2002). Accordingly, expressions of anger and shame may signal that the expresser feels devalued. Under such circumstances observers may perceive the expresser as having low competence because they interpret this emotional expression as a sign of insecurity about one's capabilities. Thus, a perceived sense of devaluation should mediate the effect of anger and shame on perceived competence, such that higher levels of each emotion will increase the impression of the emoter's sense of being devalued which, in turn, will decrease the observer's assessment of the emoter's competence.

As is apparent from the analysis above, expressions of shame are expected to decrease perceived competence by reducing the perception of the expresser's decisiveness, by increasing the perception of the expresser's feelings of devaluation, or via a combination of these effects. Anger, in contrast, is expected to either increase perceived competence by increasing perceived decisiveness or reduce perceived competence by increasing the impression that the emoter feels devalued. Anger may, on the other hand, lead concomitantly to both effects, which cancel each other out at least to some extent.

Thus, an individual's emotional responses should affect perceptions of competence. However, perceivers often have additional information more directly reflecting another's competence, e.g., information concerning one's professional status. How do these two cues combine to determine perceptions of competence?

Emotions may affect competence inferences only when other, more direct, information concerning competence—such as professional status—is absent or ambiguous. Previous research shows that emotions affect perceivers' judgements only when other relevant information is weak (see e.g., Hareli et al., 2009). Yet emotions can still affect perceptions of competence in spite of observers having other information indicating the target's competence level. A study by Brescoll and Uhlmann (2008) showed that a male CEO who reported expressing anger in response to failure seemed more competent than a failing CEO who reported that he had reacted with emotional neutrality. For an assistant trainee, however, anger and emotional neutrality led to comparable levels of inferred competence. Nevertheless, for females, regardless of their status, anger decreased perceived competence. In a similar vein, emotions expected to be associated with low competence, such as shame or sadness, may decrease the perceived competence of a person who has a low professional status, but not that of someone whose status is higher. Study 1 was designed to test these predictions.

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