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Emotion, Legal, criminological and forensic

People’s sense of control over their actions is reduced at a fundamental level when they’re angry or afraid

Participants put into a fearful or angry state really do seem to have a reduced sense of agency, according to a paper published recently in Experimental Brain Research.

30 April 2019

By Matthew Warren

During major bouts of anger or fear, people can end up taking extreme and sometimes violent actions. But they often say that, in the moment, they didn’t feel responsible for those actions – they “lost control” or “saw red”. In the UK, under certain circumstances, a person accused of murder can even claim that this “loss of control” led to them killing their victim. If successful, this defence can reduce charges to manslaughter.

Now the first study of its kind suggests that there is some truth to these claims. Participants put into a fearful or angry state really do seem to have a reduced sense of agency, according to a paper published recently in Experimental Brain Research, raising questions about the accountability of people going through extreme emotions.

Julia Christensen and colleagues at University College London assessed participants’ sense of agency while they were in different emotional states. To do this, they used a measure of a perceptual distortion known as “intentional binding”. Intentional binding refers to the fact that we perceive our deliberate physical actions as occurring closer in time to their sensory consequences than was really the case

In the standard task demonstrating this effect, participants press a button while watching a clock hand which is constantly rotating. They have to say what time was indicated by the clock hand when they pressed the button. On some trials, pressing the button triggers a noise a fraction of a second later, while on other trials pressing the button doesn’t have any consequence. For the trials in which there is a noise, intentional binding means that people tend to say that they pressed the button later than they really did (and later than in the silent trials), closer in time to the noise. Crucially for current purposes, intentional binding only occurs for deliberate, voluntary actions, and in fact a larger intentional binding effect is usually taken by researchers as evidence that a participant feels more in control of her or his actions.

The new study used this standard intentional binding task – but with a twist. During the task, the researchers also induced feelings of fear or anger in their participants. For the fear condition, participants saw the word “Threat!” on screen during some trials, which signalled that they might receive a painful electric shock. 

In the anger condition, participants sometimes performed an additional task where they had to respond to a sound by pressing a button as quickly as possible in order to avoid losing money. To enrage the participants, the researchers made this task impossible to win: the participants were always told they were too slow and received the financial penalty. 

Across three experiments – two that induced fear and one anger – the researchers found that participants had reduced intentional binding when they were in an emotional state. That is, for the fear and anger trials, participants’ perception of when they pressed the button shifted less towards the timing of the noise compared to neutral trials. 

These results suggest that the participants had a reduced sense of agency over their button-pressing when they felt fear and anger. This provides some of the first evidence that going through extreme negative emotions can in fact make people feel less in control, as has often been assumed. And the fact that this effect was found using an implicit measure of agency, rather than by simply asking participants whether they felt in control, suggests that it may be happening at a fairly fundamental level.

But there are limitations to the study: most noticeably that there was no condition in which the researchers induced a positive emotion like happiness. It could be that strong emotional states generally reduce people’s sense of agency, regardless of whether they are positive or negative. And one of the two fear experiments did not actually produce a significant result but was only reported as a trend, so it remains to be seen whether the results will be replicated in another sample. 

While the research provides some scientific rationale for the “loss of control” defence, there are still much broader ethical and legal questions. Even if extreme negative emotional states do leave people with a reduced sense of control over their actions, for example, that doesn’t necessarily imply that they should be absolved of any sins they commit. “The fact that sense of agency is reduced by negative emotional states does not demonstrate total lack of responsibility, nor condone any specific action,” the authors write. “Feeling less responsible does not necessarily make one actually less responsible.”

Further reading

I just lost it! Fear and anger reduce the sense of agency: a study using intentional binding

About the author

Matthew Warren (@MattbWarren) is Staff Writer at BPS Research Digest