Angry people are easier to persuade

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A few weeks ago we had a look at whether humour could be used to make arguments more persuasive.

How timely then that research just published has investigated whether anger could also be used (although probably not at the same time).

Watch enough TV and you’ll see that many advertisers use anger. Take the advertisement below, which clearly tries to inspire some outrage.

But until now nobody has fully analysed all the scientific research on whether these emotional appeals really work in experimental studies.

Walter et. al (2018) identified 55 studies that looked at whether making your target audience angry was more likely to persuade them to do something, compared to a less emotional appeal.

This meta-analysis of studies of more than 6800 people found there is a benefit in using anger, but there were some interesting nuances in their findings. For example, there was no difference if the anger was relevant to the behaviour change you’re looking for or not, which I find somewhat surprising.

Less surprising is that strong arguments seem to multiply the benefits of introducing anger into your target audience. And there was a strong benefit in including “response-efficacy” information, that is explaining how a change in behaviour was both achievable and would lead to a desired outcome for your target audience.

But there is a word of caution here too. There appears to be a curvilinear relationship between the level of anger felt by people and their attitudes. Low levels of anger don’t have any effect, medium levels of anger have have a positive effect, but very high levels of anger can backfire strongly. Plus you might end up with a punch in the face.

(Walter et. al 2018, p13)

As with the humour meta-analysis we looked at previously, these effects are technically small but in persuasion a statistically small effect can be very useful, particularly when communicating to a mass audience, and anger seems to fall in that category.

“Usually when people are sad, they don’t do anything. They just cry over their condition. But when they get angry, they bring about a change.” – Malcolm X.

And one more thing. Van’t Reit et. al. (2018) recently found that there is no benefit in including anger in your messaging, and warned that doing this may cause a backfire effect. So if you’re inspiring anger in your audience perhaps do it without using angry language.


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