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EASP – European Association of Social Psychology

EASP Seedcorn Grant Report by Julia Sasse

01.02.2021, by Tina Keil in grant report

Max-Planck-Institute for Research on Collective Goods, Bonn, Germany; Project: "It Doesn’t Have to Be Action: Anger Expression as Intervention Against Moral Transgressions"

Julia Sasse
Julia Sasse

Sometimes, uninvolved observers intervene against others’ moral transgressions to defend and protect their moral beliefs, despite potential costs for themselves (Halmburger et al., 2016; Osswald et al., 2010; Sasse et al., 2020). Commonly studied examples of intervention are verbal reprimands or financial sanctions against the transgressor (for example Baumert et al., 2013; Lotz et al., 2011). Noteworthily, these behavioral acts constitute rather explicit reactions to norm transgressions. But focusing solely on explicit reactions may fall short in the endeavor of fully understanding interventions against moral transgressions. In this project, I set out to investigate the use of anger expression as a comparably subtle form of intervention. I did so by addressing the questions of why is anger expressed, when is anger expressed, and who expresses anger in response to others’ wrongdoing.

The idea of a communicative use of emotion expression is rooted in the social function of emotions. Expressed emotions carry information that others are able to decode and inferences about the dispositional and situational origins of a displayed emotion may impact others’ cognitions, emotions, and behavior (Hareli & Hess, 2010; Hess, 2014; van Kleef, 2009; van Kleef et al., 2011). As such, expressed emotions fulfill an important role in social interactions that goes beyond the content of spoken words or behavioral acts. It stands to reason that emotions are – at times – expressed strategically, intended to communicate with and influence others (Clark et al., 1996; Sasse et al., 2018). In the context of moral transgressions, anger expression appears particularly well suited to stop others’ wrongdoings as it can communicate that the acts are appraised as wrongful and a motivation to contest them (Hess, 2014).

Preliminary evidence for the idea that anger expression may be used as an intervention stems from two studies in which behavioral intervention against ostensible norm transgressions were observed in the lab and anger expression was assessed (Halmburger et al., 2015; Sasse et al., 2020). Correlational results suggest (a) that anger expression was not just a mere reflection of anger experience, indicating that strategic considerations may shape expression beyond experience and (b) that anger expression was often, but not always, associated with behavioral intervention. In other words, anger expression sometimes occurred without and sometimes in conjunction with behavioral intervention in response to the transgressions.

Building on these observations, the EASP Seedcorn Grant enabled me to systematically investigate goals of anger expression as well as situational and dispositional characteristics that may account for its use. For this purpose, I modified the so-called Three-Person-Punishment Game in order to assess anger expression, behavioral intervention (i.e., costly financial sanctioning), a combination of both, or complete passivity as alternative reactions to observed unfairness. By means of this game variant, I addressed the following objectives: (1) Establish anger expression as a strategically employed means of intervention by identifying its goals. In particular, I hypothesized that anger expression is intended to communicate the perceived moral wrongfulness of a transgression and to deter the transgressor from future wrongdoing. (2) Investigate situational characteristics that predict the use of anger expression as a means of intervention. (3) Identify contextualized personal dispositions and beliefs that determine anger expression as a means of intervention.

Through an online panel provider, I collected data from a diverse sample (N = 700). Participants first responded to several established measures of contextualized dispositions and were then presented with the Three-Person-Punishment Game. All participants were in the role of an observer who witnessed an unfair split of money between a dictator and a passive recipient and could decide whether and how to react to the dictator’s decision. Subsequently, participants answered questions assessing situation perception and intervention goals.

As expected, results showed that participants were more likely to engage in any form of intervention the more they perceived the situation as unfair. Critically, financial sanctioning and anger expression were associated with distinct goals: While financial sanctioning was best predicted by the goal to establish fairness, anger expression was predicted by the goal to communicate moral wrongfulness and prompt behavioral change. For anger expression, this was also the case when controlling for experienced anger, supporting the notion that anger expression does not only reflect experience but strategic concerns. Moreover, the combination of both interventions was predicted by the endorsement of both goals.

At the same time, there was no evidence that anger expression was seen as a “cheaper” form of intervention than financial sanctioning as it was not associated with perceived costliness or the goal to avoid costs. I also investigated whether individual differences in contextually relevant dispositions, specifically dispositional sensitivity to injustice and moral identity, may explain the choice of means of intervention but found little evidence.

In summary, this study provided the first systematic evidence that some observers of others’ norm transgressions indeed use anger expression strategically to intervene. As such, the results highlight the necessity to consider a broad range of reactions that observers may show if we want to comprehensively understand interventions against norm violations. Also more generally, the results provide new evidence that emotions are, at times, expressed for strategic purposes and thus speak to our understanding of the functions of emotions.

At the same time, the study constitutes a starting point for further investigation of anger expression as a form of intervention. For example, while the present study identified distinct associations of means of intervention with goals, additional research is needed to understand when and why a particular goal is activated. The Seedcorn Grant was immensely helpful for my work and as this study has answered first questions as well as stimulated new ones the grant has been indeed a real seed corn.


  • Baumert, A., Halmburger, A., & Schmitt, M. (2013). Interventions Against Norm Violations: Dispositional Determinants of Self-Reported and Real Moral Courage. Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin, 39(8), 1053–1068.
  • Clark, M. S., Pataki, S. P., & Carver, V. H. (1996). Some thoughts and findings on self-presentation of emotions in relationships (G. J. O. Fletcher & J. Fitness, Eds.; pp. 247–274). Lawrence Erlbaum Associates, Inc.
  • Halmburger, A., Baumert, A., & Schmitt, M. (2015). Anger as driving factor of moral courage in comparison with guilt and global mood: A multimethod approach. European Journal of Social Psychology, 45(1), 39–51.
  • Halmburger, A., Baumert, A., & Schmitt, M. (2016). Every day heroes – Determinants of moral courage. In S. T. Allison, G. R. Goethals, & R. M. Kramer (Eds.), Handbook of heroism and heroic leadership (pp. 165–184). Routledge.
  • Hareli, S., & Hess, U. (2010). What emotional reactions can tell us about the nature of others: An appraisal perspective on person perception. Cognition & Emotion, 24(1), 128–140.
  • Hess, U. (2014). Anger is a positive emotion (W. G. Parrott, Ed.; pp. 55–75). Guilford Press
  • Lotz, S., Okimoto, T. G., Schlösser, T., & Fetchenhauer, D. (2011). Punitive versus compensatory reactions to injustice: Emotional antecedents to third-party interventions. Journal of Experimental Social Psychology, 47(2), 477–480.
  • Osswald, S., Greitemeyer, T., Fischer, P., & Frey, D. (2010). What is moral courage? Definition, explication, and classification of a complex construct. In The psychology of courage: Modern research on an ancient virtue.
  • Sasse, J., Halmburger, A., & Baumert, A. (2020). The functions of anger in moral courage—Insights from a behavioral study. Emotion.
  • Sasse, J., Spears, R., & Gordijn, E. H. (2018). When to reveal what you feel: How emotions towards antagonistic out-group and third party audiences are expressed strategically. PLOS ONE, 13(9), e0202163.
  • van Kleef, G. A. (2009). How emotions regulate social life: The emotions as social information (EASI) model. Current Directions in Psychological Science, 18, 184–188.
  • van Kleef, G. A., van Doorn, E. A., Heerdink, M. W., & Koning, L. F. (2011). Emotion is for influence. European Review of Social Psychology, 22, 114–163.