Anger Impairs People’s Cognitive Scope, Study Shows

The fact that anger can have adverse effects on behavior is evident. When people get angry, they behave in ways that they normally would not do. So, anger seems to impair or even block rational thinking.

New experimental research by Gable, Poole, and Harmon-Jones (2015), published in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, supports the idea that anger impairs rational thinking. More specifically, anger narrows people’s cognitive scope (i.e., attention and thinking).

When the cognitive scope is narrowed, then everything, expect for the object that evoked the anger, is shut out temporarily. Therefore,  a narrow cognitive scope undermines people’s cognitive control and rational thinking.

As a result, people may do things that they normally would not do. As the authors put it:

“The narrowed cognitive scope associated with anger makes it less likely that angry individuals will see alternative ways of addressing the problem that caused the anger.”  (p. 171).

Also, this research supports the “motivational intensity model”, which posits that motivational intensity per se narrows cognitive scope.

Motivational intensity is defined as: “The strength of the tendency to either approach a positive situation or event or to move away from a negative situation or event.” (Harmon-Jones et al., 2013).

Feelings which have a high motivational intensity are, for example, stress, desire, fear and disgust. Feelings which have a low motivational intensity are, for example, gratitude, amusement and sadness.

Emotions with a high motivational intensity affect people’s cognitive scope negatively. Evidence shows that both positive emotions (e.g., desire) and negative emotions (e.g., anger, fear, disgust) show this pattern.

Interestingly, experimental research shows that emotions with a low motivational intensity, both positive and negative ones, broaden people’s cognitive scope (Harmon-Jones et al., 2013).

So, whether your cognitive scope is narrowed or broadened depends on the motivational intensity of your emotions.

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Photo: Henti Smith