Anger biases perceptions of risk, which can fundamentally shape leaders? most critical decisions. In one early experiment, the PI found that individuals who felt angry tended to engage in riskier behaviors than did individuals in a neutral emotional state. Having discovered this connection between risk-taking behavior and anger, the PI will explore the effect more deeply by comparing the behavior of participants from the general population to those of elite leaders.

The large, diverse sample of high-level decision makers - representing governments, militaries, non-governmental organizations, and corporations will participate in a series of programmatic experiments. Simultaneously collecting biological, behavioral, cognitive, and emotional data will allow the research team to draw implications for real-world behavior. the team will examine whether anger triggers optimistic responses even when real behavior is measured, real money is at stake, and angry people are compared to those in a neutral state. The PI will also interview our leader-participants to learn about their decision making in a less structured format.

As an example, one of the planned experiments will examine the degree to which leaders adhere to long-term goals and strategies rather than being distracted by presently salient information. Specifically, the PI will study whether and how anger and accountability affect the tendency to focus too many resources on an immediate, temporary solution at the cost of a long-term, permanent gain. She predicts that angry participants, as compared to neutral participants, will focus so much on winning battles that they will ultimately lose the war. She also predicts that angry participants who are accountable only for their end result will take a more long-term strategy than those accountable for short-term decisions, while angry participants who have no accountability will fall in the middle. The results will be used to educate leaders and the public about how anger may affect their most risky and important decisions.

Project Report

Intellectual Merit Contribution to fields that are directly relevant to the project This project contributed to advancing knowledge in the fields of judgment and decision-making, social psychology, and behavioral economics. The results from this project illuminated how human emotions, leadership status, and personality differences affect individual decision making. Please refer to the products section for a complete list of publications developed based on this project. Examples of my recent, major findings are listed below: Sherman, Lee, Cuddy, Renshon, Oveis, Gross, and Lerner (2012): Despite the common perception that leaders have higher stress levels than non-leaders, leaders show lower levels of a stress hormone and lower reports of anxiety, due to their greater sense of control. Published in PNAS. Lerner, Li, and Weber (2013): Sadness increases impatience and creates a myopic focus on obtaining a reward immediately instead of later. This focus, in turn, makes people more likely to choose a small, short term gain over a large, long term gain. Published in Psychological Science. DeSteno, Li, Dickens, & Lerner (2014): Unlike sadness, gratitude reduces impatience. This effect of gratitude holds even when real money is at stake, and is significantly differentiable from those of the more general positive state of happiness. Published in Psychological Science. Contribution to fields that are indirectly relevant to the project This project contributed to the interdisciplinary field of leadership research. With the goal of significantly expanding the scope of prior leadership studies, we brought a large number of elite decision makers into laboratories and collected multiple outcome measures such as biological, behavioral, cognitive, and emotional data, which helped to advance the interrelated disciplines of leadership research. The project also recently led to meaningful implications for future research in oncology and public health. Based on the framework developed through the comprehensive studies on emotion and decision making, I began a research project with colleagues at the Massachusetts General Hospital. In addition, I have been collaborating with colleagues the Harvard School of Public Health to develop a paradigm that will be used to test the effectiveness of emotional content in public service announcements. Broader Impacts Impacts on the Harvard Kennedy School curriculum I chaired or taught in the following Executive Education programs at the Harvard Kennedy School, which served as opportunities for me to present to leaders of diverse cultural and professional backgrounds: "Leadership Decision Making: Optimizing Organizational Performance": This program teaches leaders of any backgrounds how to design optimal decision making environments and improve organizational performance. "Senior Managers in Government": This program is geared towards senior executives in governments and international organizations, who deal with multi-dimensional issues in policy development and political strategies. "Senior Executive Fellows": This program provides senior-level executives with knowledge essential for building organizational strengths, such as strategic action plans, communication skills, negotiating strategies. I also designed a new curriculum for "MLD-301 Professional Judgment and Decision Making," a master’s level course at the Harvard Kennedy School. Grounded in theories and evidence found in our studies, this class helped students understand when and why humans depart from standards of accuracy and rationality in judgment and decision making. Impacts on national leaders or international organizations I sought opportunities to disseminate findings from our studies that could help address public concerns and interests. Examples of my dissemination activities for national or international leaders are as follows: "Psychological Science and Behavioral Economics in the Service of Public Policy," a briefing at the White House, Washington, DC (2013), convened jointly by the American Psychological Society, the National Institutes of Health, the President’s Council of Economic Advisors, and the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy. "Leadership, Power and Misconduct: Insights From Behavioral Science," a briefing for Honorable Jessica Wright, Acting Under Secretary of Defense for Personnel and Readiness, United States Department of Defense (2013). "Decision Science – Applications for the United Nations," a series of presentations given to officials at the United Nations, New York (2013). "Leadership Professional Development Training," a special all-day lecture for 1st Battalion, 3rd Special Forces Group (Airborne), Airborne and Special Operations Museum, Fayetteville, NC (2014). Impacts on academic communities I gave talks at the various academic institutions, where I presented findings from our studies and often met with faculty and students one-on-one to facilitate discussion and academic collaboration. These institutions include: Massachusetts General Hospital, Psychiatric Genetics and Translational Research Seminar (2012) Harvard Radcliffe Center for Advanced Study (2013 and 2014) MIT, Sloan School of Business (2013) The United Nations, Leadership Program (2013) Harvard School of Public Health (2014) University of Southern California (2014) Harvard Kennedy School (2014) Boston University School of Management (2014) Harvard Law School (2014)

National Science Foundation (NSF)
Division of Social and Economic Sciences (SES)
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Robert E. O'Connor
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Harvard University
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