Dateline: June, 2021, Issue 2

Are attorneys more persuasive when expressing anger?

Emotional expression is a key part of trial advocacy for attorneys. Many attorneys are encouraged to demonstrate conviction through the expression of anger as a way to gain credibility with juries.

Salerno and colleagues (Salerno & Phalen, 2018, 2019; Salerno et al., 2018) conducted a series of experiments involving nearly 700 participants from across the country to test whether expressing anger in court makes attorneys more effective.

In all of these experiments, participants watched the presentation of a segment of a prosecutor's closing argument from a real murder case presented by (a) either a male or female attorney in (b) either a calm or angry tone. In some experiments, participants watched a video in which an actor played the prosecutor; in other experiments, participants watched actual trial attorneys, both male and female, present the closing argument. All attorneys and actors delivered the same closing and showed similar displays of anger. Participants reported their impressions of the attorneys and how likely they would be to hire the attorney. The results were remarkably consistent across these experiments.

In these experiments, the male attorney was perceived more favorably than the female attorney when expressing anger. Male attorneys also were perceived as significantly more effective in the closing argument when expressing anger than when using a calm tone of voice. The opposite was true for female attorneys: when expressing anger (relative to when calm), female attorneys were seen as significantly less effective and less competent.

Participants used the positive aspects of anger (e.g., it shows conviction, it shows power) to justify hiring a male attorney who expressed anger, and the negative aspects of anger (e.g., it is shrill, it is obnoxious) to justify not hiring a female attorney expressing anger.

Participants who were moderately or highly benevolently sexist (the academic definition is "sujectively favorable but patronizing ideas about women"), politically conservative and/or older were more likely to favor attorney emotional expressions that conformed to traditional gender norms (male attorneys who expressed anger instead of calm) and less likely to favor attorneys who violated traditional gender norms (female attorneys who expressed anger relative to calm). Only participants with low levels of benevolent sexism, low levels of political conservatism and younger were unaffected by anger expressions of male versus female attorneys.

Male attorneys are rewarded for expressing anger. Female attorneys are penalized for expressing the same anger. Gender bias in reactions to anger in court is exacerbated as jurors' benevolent sexism, political conservatism and age increases.

Source Salerno, J. M. & Phalen, H. (2019). Traditional gender roles and backlash aainst female attorneys expressing anger in court. Journal of Empirical Legal Studies, 16(4), pp. 909-932.

Source Salerno, J.M. & Phalen, H. (2018). Predictors of negative reactions to female attorneys expressing anger in court. Available at SSRN:  https://ssrn.com/abstract=3205241 or http://dx.doi.org/10.2139/ssrn.3205241

Source Salerno, J.M., Phalen, H.J. Reyes, R.N. & Schweitzer, N.J. (2018). Closing with emotion: The differential impact of male versus female attorneys expressing anger in court. Law & Human Behavior, 42(4), pp. 385-401.