Anger Management

Although angry people are motivated to pursue good things, they will also stand up and fight for things that may be trivial or ill advised. Of course, the most extreme act of aggression is killing another human being. Statistics show that the overwhelming majority of murders committed in the United States are facilitated by unchecked anger (e.g., U.S. Federal Bureau of Investigation, 2010). Angry people may choose their battles poorly. Indeed, anger is widely assumed to be an important cause of aggression. In support of that view, nearly all experimental studies of aggression try to make participants angry first. For example, the studies on media violence and aggression typically find that watching violent films increases aggression only among participants who have been first angered (e.g., Berkowitz & Geen, 1967). Non-angry people who watch the same films typically exhibit much lower levels of aggression.

Perhaps that is not the whole story, however. One theory has held that anger actually evolved to reduce aggression rather than increase it. In this view, social conflicts lead to aggression as one way of deciding what animal gets what it wants. This gets the job done but in a costly manner, because aggression is harmful. Anger may have evolved as an advanced warning signal that aggression may be impending. This can allow the two disputants to settle the manner without coming to blows. To put this another way, if there were no anger, then whenever you had a conflict with someone, aggression could erupt without warning. In contrast, now that anger often comes first, you can tell when someone is getting close to attacking, and so you can suggest a compromise, give in, or even take flight before you get hurt (Averill, 1982).

Indeed, our own work has suggested that it is an oversimplification to say that aggression emerges from anger. Aggression may actually function as a rough form of anger management, insofar as people engage in aggression because they expect to get rid of their anger that way. Our studies borrowed the “mood-freezing pill” manipulation developed by Robert Cialdini and his colleagues in the 1980s. Some participants were given a pill and told (falsely) that it would temporarily render their emotional state immune to change. No matter how they felt, they would remain feeling that way for about an hour after taking the pill. We found that when people had taken this pill, anger did not lead to aggression (Bushman, Baumeister, & Phillips, 2003). Why? The mood-freezing pill ostensibly removes the possibility of regulating your emotion. Whatever people normally do to change their emotions becomes useless (or so they believe) after they take that pill. The implication is that angry people normally aggress because they expect aggression to remove their anger and make them feel better. After taking the mood-freezing pill, they believe they will not feel better if they aggress, and so they refrain from aggressing.

To be sure, the mood-freezing effects do not signify that the person is carefully deliberating among carefully considered options and anticipated outcomes when deciding whether to aggress. Rather, they suggest simply that people act in ways that seem to carry the promise of making oneself feel better. When that promise is removed (such as by the mood-freezing pill), the emotional appeal of aggression is diminished, and so people feel less inclined to lash out.

Because it is unpleasant, many people want to get rid of their anger when they experience it. There are three possible ways of dealing with anger. One standard approach endorsed by many societies is to hide one’s anger. This approach can prompt people to stuff their anger deep inside and repress it. There is some evidence that this is a costly strategy. Long-term concealed anger can be quite destructive to the person, increasing the risk of such illnesses as heart disease (e.g., Ellis, 1977). On the other hand, if people try to hide their anger, some anger might be diminished. According to the facial feedback hypothesis, feedback from the face muscles evokes or magnifies emotions (e.g., Tomkins, 1962; Izard, 1990). Thus, people who show their anger might feel angrier inside than people who hide their anger.

A second approach to deal with anger is to express it. This view treats anger as a kind of inner pressure or corrosive substance that builds up over time inside the person and does harm unless it is released. This view is commonly reflected in the metaphors of the English language (Lakoff & Kovecses, 1983). People are sometimes described as being like teapots or pressure cookers, and their anger is the fluid inside. As irritations increase, the anger inside builds up and rises. We talk about anger “welling up inside” people. When people become very angry, their “blood boils” or they reach the “boiling point.” If the anger becomes too intense, people “blow up,” blow their stack,” “blow a fuse,” “erupt,” “flip their lid,” “hit the ceiling,” or “go through the roof.” To prevent the explosion, people are encouraged to “vent their anger,” “blow off steam,” “let it out,” and “get it off their chest.”

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