5 Important New Insights About Why We Get Angry

5 Important New Insights About Why We Get Angry

Psychology September 18, 2015 / By Todd B Kashdan Ph.D.
5 Important New Insights About Why We Get Angry

Anger is an energy. To understand this energy, we need to start with how little we know.

At the edge of Seoul, South Korea stands an amazing UNESCO World Heritage Site —the Hwaseong Fortress. I went there as an escape from the city's financial district, to immerse myself in an area where nearly nobody speaks English. I wanted to experience culture shock. I wanted to enter a restaurant where there are no pictures, everything is written in Korean, and you must point, eat, and hope your body survives. When you are in a situation such as this, you experience frustration—a low-grade form of anger nowhere near the province of rage. The anger is born from regrets and self-loathing: Why did it take me so long to travel to Asia for the first time? Why do I know so little about the world? Why can't I stay calm?

It sounds as if the experience is undesirable. Unsettling? Yes. But enjoyable? Absolutely. Because I now feel compelled to hit every UNESCO World Heritage Site with my 3 children, so that each of us can speed up our rate of wisdom.

"Anger is an energy" — Johnny Rotten (of the Sex Pistols and PIL)

I am fascinated by anger because in the midst of my book tour, it has been rated Number One by readers and audiences alike as the most undesirable emotion. So of course, I feel compelled to understand this emotional state. Upon reviewing the existing science I found it interesting that almost everything we know is based on researchers handing out a single survey at one time point on how angry people generally feel. I didn't want to know about people's retrospective reports. I wanted to collect descriptions of how anger is experienced in the moment: What happens when people are extremely angry on a given day?

Our work has recently been accepted for publication and I want readers to be the first to learn the results from studying 173 adults who logged in 2,342 anger episodes over the course of three weeks. Our participants reported on their most intense anger each day and with an open-ended format, described the trigger. They also answered questions on the intensity of their anger, their difficulty controlling it, and their strategies to manage anger, along with some baseline personality traits to figure out which individuals are most susceptible to unhealthy expressions of anger.

Here are 5 insights from this work:

1. If you want to know what triggers anger, ask about what people truly think instead of tying them to pre-ordained questions (and 1-7 response scales).

By using an open-ended question, we collected qualitative data on what caused each anger episode. We were explorers with few hypotheses, a notion that is considered sacrilege in science. Yet eminent thinkers such as Paul Rozin, a psychologist at the University of Pennsylvania, bemoan the lack of descriptive studies in psychology. Consider this statement from 2001 in an article about "some lessons from Solomon Asch":

This article is a plea for balance, for a greater consideration for identification and description of phenomena and invariances as opposed to modeling, hypothesis testing, experiments, and sophisticated statistical approaches. The claim is not that the current approach is wrong or unproductive. Rather, the claim is that we have relied too much on the predominant current approach, given our stage of development as a science. Much of human psychology, like most of economics, has been so attracted to the trappings of science that it has invested insufficiently in the fundamental early stages of science. Careful observation, informed curiosity, recognition of the importance of context and the limits of abstract and laboratory-based models, and, in general, more emulation of the life sciences would be desirable — not to replace what we have, but to stand beside it. The outcomes of experiments may be clear, but their meaning and significance for the target phenomenon are often questionable.

Psychologists are extremely good at analyzing problems, making causal models, and experimentally teasing apart alternatives. If they are pointed in a particular direction, they find valuable and clever ways to advance. The skills of psychologists in this domain surpass those of their fellow students of the human social world in anthropology, political science, and sociology, and one might argue that these other social sciences could profit by incorporating these approaches into their scholarship. However, psychologists should learn from anthropologists, political scientists, and sociologists to keep their eyes on the “big social phenomena,” and to situate what they study in the flow of social life.

The problem for social psychology is that there should be more concern about the directions in which the field is pointed. In evaluating research for grant support or publication, we should recognize that the requirements for scientific rigor and unambiguity are relative to the stage of advance of the investigation of the issue in question. A first article (or grant) on a subject should not be evaluated by the same criteria as the 100th article designed to provide evidence for a well-articulated issue on which there has been much previous research. The criterion should be: “How much does it increase our understanding?” This can be done by settling or contributing to a well-defined issue; opening a new area; calling attention to an anomaly; bringing to bear already published material relevant to, but not known by practitioners; integrating across paradigms; or introducing new models and theories. Advance is the critical issue, advance perhaps in relation to amount of journal space (or funding) required.

2. There are five superordinate anger triggers.

  • Other People: 63.3% of the time.
    Definition: Person/living being, group of people, or once living person/being to blame for anger. Any social event. No face-face interaction required.
  • Psychological/Physical Distress: 14.3% of the time.
    Definition: Internally derived thoughts, feelings, bodily sensations. You can consider this one of the first studies to show evidence of anger as a form of experiential avoidance. Here is an awesome video that illustrates the idea which has gained traction in Acceptance and Commitment Therapy. 
  • Intrapersonal Demands: 11.2% of the time.
    Definition: Non-social demands or obligations that need to be completed or accomplished.
  • Environment: 7.3% of the time.
    Definition: Location where people can be in and all of its non-living components/possessions. Non-social situations that are blamed and are not directly related to distressing thoughts.
  • Diffuse/Undifferentiated: 3.9% of the time.
    Definition: Source of anger is unknown or anger is spread throughout other areas of life

It is unsurprising that the most common antecedent of anger in daily life is teasing, complaining, invasive, or obnoxious behavior by other people (along with acts of kindness and positivity at the wrong time, in the wrong place, at the wrong dose, or with the wrong form of expression). But these findings are important because they illustrate how common it is to be angry at the self.

3. When we are unable to describe what makes us angry, we lack the information that moods often provide, and find it more difficult to regulate our emotions and work toward meaningful life goals.

This was my favorite finding in this paper, as my colleagues and I have been writing about the importance of meta-emotion for quite some time. That is, when we find it difficult to use emotion labels to describe what we feel, it is harder to engage in healthy emotion regulation. For the first time, this work has been extended beyond emotion to what we think causes emotion. When the antecedent of anger remained unclear to people, they reported the most intense anger, the most difficulty controlling anger, and the most regrets for how these thoughts, feelings, and sensations were handled. Getting ambushed with anger from an undifferentiated source leaves people with an unclear problem and resolution, and it is harder to cope. These findings speak to the importance of improving everyone's emotional vocabulary, in childhood and adulthood alike.

4. Personality traits provide a minimal explanation for how anger operates in everyday life.

We were surprised to find that the Big Five personality traits, trait mindfulness, and trait use of cognitive reappraisal and expressive suppression, had almost no associations with the experience and regulation of anger in naturalistic settings—that is, until we looked more closely at the existing literature. Almost all prior work on personality traits and anger has been explored at the between-person level with global surveys. Thus, we know surprisingly little about how basic personality traits are linked to how anger is triggered, experienced, and regulated in daily life. A point emphasized by Affleck, Zautra, Tennen, and Armeli (1999):

We, like most, have been tempted to draw within-person inferences from across-persons associations. For example, in early cross-sectional studies of stressful life events, correlations between the number of events and health problems were taken by many to mean that when a person experiences a stressful event, he or she would be more likely to become ill. No such inference can be made without observing people when they are under stress and when they are not. An across-persons correlation, moreover, can depart markedly from a within-person correlation. We cannot emphasize this enough…between-persons and within-person correlations can differ not only in magnitude but also in direction and that a statistically significant positive between-persons association can emerge when not a single individual in the group shows a positive within-person association!

We believe our findings offer a provocative addition to a large body of work on personality traits and anger, much of which has been limited to global instead of daily or moment-to-moment assessments. These two methodologies work in tandem to understand general human tendencies and what occurs in response to particular events and temporal periods from one day to the next. Do not assume that how someone scores on a personality trait means that this is representative of what they think, feel, and do in the real-world.

5. More often than not, people respond to anger in a healthy manner.

Despite all of the articles and books on anger as a "negative emotion," our results suggest that most of the time, people experience anger and are able to soothe themselves, tolerate, accept, and even harness this distress. The experience of the most intense anger rarely led to physical or verbal aggression. Our findings dovetail with recent work by Maya Tamir, James Gross, and others, suggesting that in certain situations, anger is exactly what is desirable in a given situation. (This work is summarized in Chapter 3 of our latest book.)

Anger is an energy. To understand this energy, we need to start with how little we know. We did this with a descriptive study. We hope other researchers do the same with their respective topics. Begin with a sense of wonder about what exactly feral humans do from one moment to the next as they navigate their world.

For more about this research, contact me to get a copy of the article: Kashdan, T.B., Goodman, F.R., Mallard, T.T., & DeWall, C.N. (in press). What triggers anger in everyday life? Exploring links to the intensity, control, and regulation of these emotions, as well as personality traits. Journal of Personality

Article originally appeared at Psychology Today 

Dr. Todd B. Kashdan is a public speaker, psychologist, and professor of psychology and senior scientist at the Center for the Advancement of Well-Being at George Mason University. His book, The upside of your dark side: Why being your whole self - not just your “good” self - drives success and fulfillment is available from Amazon, Barnes & Noble, Booksamillion, Powell's or Indie Bound. If you're interested in speaking engagements or workshops, go to toddkashdan.com

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