In Defense of Anger: An Evolutionary Necessity and its Contemporary Applicability

Anger is defined as an unpleasant feeling that results from an unpleasant event and it is, therefore, not particularly surprising that so many people dismiss it as a pointless emotion. However, anger has proven to confer a great number of evolutionary benefits on those who utilize it, including (1) improving one’s bargaining position, (2) ensuring the wellbeing of society, (3) signalling to others that you care about the wellbeing of society, and (4) convincing authors to not begin abstracts with definitions or end them with extreme overgeneralizations. It is because of these benefits that anger continues to be both an unavoidable and necessary part of life.


While many other psychologists are out making significant contributions to the field, I am getting angry at posts on the internet1. Partly out of a love of psychology, and partly out of an embittered need to justify my irrational anger, I would like to address the claim of one such post. This claim, overlaid on an ostensibly rad photo of a super nova2, reads rather knowingly, “you know too much psychology when you can’t get mad because you understand everyone’s reasons for doing everything” (Cialdini, 2015). On its face this appears to be defensible, in the same way that all internet memes initially appear to be defensible. Everyone can recall moments when they ceased being angry due to the consideration of another person’s motives and it can therefore be easy to generalize that this will be true in all cases. However, ignoring the impossibility of an individual having the omniscience to know the logical underpinnings of everyone’s actions, I believe this to be a flawed argument because I imagine that psychological knowledge only increases one’s appreciation for, and one’s willingness to engage in, anger. This is because anger not only has clear evolutionary advantages, but also contemporary applicability3.

A popular explanation for anger, as described by Sell, Tooby, and Cosmides (2009), is the recalibrational theory, which posits that anger is used for bargaining by increasing the chance that a situation will go in favor of the angry individual. This is accomplished by having the targeted individual recalibrate the amount of value they assign to the angry individual’s argument. This change in weight is purported to be because people will fear the costs associated with being attacked or shunned by the angry individual. By way of illustration, if a man walked up to me baring an expression of anger and demanded that I hand him the delightful Kit Kat bar that I was currently enjoying4, I would be able to make a quick calculation that one dollar (a rough estimate of the cost of the chocolate bar) would not be worth incurring the costs of getting into a fight. As such, I would be very likely to hand over the chocolate bar5. However, if the same man approached me with a smile and demanded that I give him my chocolate bar, I would likely assume that it was a joke or that he was diabetic, and I would feel less pressure to give it to him6. This would suggest that an individual who is stronger (able to inflict more costs) would be more likely to employ anger, which is exactly what Price, Dunn, Hopkins, and Kang (2012) found. In other words, the majority of people would be more willing to concede the chocolate bar to a cloud of synthol and stanozolol than a breatharian yoga instructor.

AngerThe recalibrational theory also postulates that anger may signal an impending loss of access to the opposite sex’s genes. If a man demanded a chocolate bar from his wife and she believed that failing to hand him her chocolate bar would lead to a divorce, he would be an extremely manipulative [expletive], but he would also be more likely to receive the chocolate bar. This is because a divorce may cause her to lose access to his valuable, yet extremely manipulative and chocolate-laden, genes. As expected, Price et al. (2012) also found that the more attractive the individual, whether that be due to facial symmetry (correlated with strong immune systems in men and fertility in women [Rantala, 2014]) or intelligence (correlated with longer lifespans [Arden et al. 2015]) the more likely that they will be to employ anger, because those traits increase the value of, and the harm of no longer having access to, those genes.

Assuming that the recalibrational theory of anger is true, many would rightly ask, then why are we angry at things when we are not directly involved in bargaining? Following the presented evidence, I, as a white male, should feel no anger at a politician who repeatedly expounds sexist, racist, and xenophobic sentiments. In fact, one could make a fairly logical argument that anger would only be to my detriment, due to the increased probability of getting into an altercation. Yet I do get angry. Why? Fessler (2010) tackled this question by discussing non-direct anger as a means of maintaining a prosperous society and a means of advertising one’s commitment to that society.    

Societies confer a great deal of benefits onto their populations (e.g. safety, education, healthcare, etcetera), but to do so, that society must have a sense of order. Everything, from the hospital you were born in, to the school you attended, to the job you worked at, to the cemetery you will be buried in, requires order. It will therefore come as little surprise that maintaining order within society is very valuable. The theory is that we use anger to maintain order within our society to ensure future receipt of benefits. For example, if incurring the costs of anger increases your bargaining power to the point that you convince others to be more inclusive of immigrants and foreign workers, the economy is liable to benefit through an increase in firm investments (Peri 2013)7. With an improved economy, more resources will go to healthcare8, and with improved healthcare9 life expectancy will increase, which may, in turn, mean that in cases where you would have otherwise died, you will instead live and be able to pass on your genes10.

Considering this on the individual level, getting angry about acts that break social customs will signal to others that you are interested in maintaining societal order and, by extension, interested in protecting the wellbeing of others. This will make you appear more attractive and therefore more capable of ascertaining a high quantity or quality of sexual partners. For instance, getting angry about discrimination may lead you to be perceived as more attractive by signaling to others that you are not prejudicial, as long as prejudice is seen as a negative attribute within your society. Similarly, if you walked into a restaurant and yelled at a man for eating a hamburger, you may be seen as more attractive to vegetarians who agree with your sentiment, but you may also be seen as less attractive to the other restaurant goers who just want to enjoy their wheat-wrapped meat cookies.  

So anger is beneficial from an evolutionary perspective, but that doesn’t necessarily mean that it is applicable in contemporary settings. Many things that were beneficial or incidental to the survival of our ancestors are no longer useful (e.g. the positive feedback of high calorie/fat meals). Despite this, I assert that anger is unavoidable and undeniably important in terms of social fluency.

In regards to anger being unavoidable, if we return to the you know too much psychology post, it becomes apparent after some consideration that understanding why something occurs does not allow you to control it. Understanding why a tattoo gun hurts when it stabs your skin three-thousand times a minutes doesn’t make it any less painful – you can’t control the pain by understanding how irrational it is. In fact, Sprenger et al. (2012) showed that mental distraction relieves pain through the use of endogenous opioids, so it would actually be best not to understand it11. Understanding why someone does something is a logical process, but emotion, by virtue of being an emotion, is emotional and therefore does not rely on logical processes12. I can logically accept that the guy who cuts me off in traffic was simply trying to get home quicker, and that it wasn’t a personal affront, and that he didn’t consciously think “my time is more important than yours.” He likely only thought “I want to get home as fast as I can”, but that doesn’t make me any less irritated, because my emotions don’t care about the logic behind his actions. Just as I cannot control the feeling of pain that arises from a tattoo gun, I cannot control the feeling13 of anger that arises from being cut-off in traffic14. And even if I could, would that be a good idea?

It seems that many of our current television (anti-)heroes forego emotion for a more logical and unencumbered thought process and many of us are envious of this ability. We fail to quit jobs, break up, and act in our best interest, solely because we submit to our emotional considerations. Seeing someone with the mental fortitude to follow through on their desired actions, as disagreeable as they may be, is frankly appealing. However, I would argue that just because emotions are a naught value in the decision-making process of these individuals, does not mean emotions aren’t considered for the purposes of decision implementation. As discussed by Cleckley (1988), a common trait of psychopathy, other than an apparent lack of emotion, is charm. And charm doesn’t work unless you have some understanding of social cues and emotion. To further highlight my point, there is also Cleckley’s description of those individuals with schizotypal personality disorder, who seem to lack emotion, but also don’t have the outward charm of a psychopath. This inevitably causes them to appear peculiar or abnormal, which is definitely not the desired outcome we strive for.  We really don’t wish that we didn’t understand emotions, we just wish we didn’t feel beholden to them.

To illustrate this point, imagine that two people meet in university and instantly fall in love. Other than the rocky moments common to all relationships, their relationship is extremely loving and after ten years they get married. After several more years one is at a psychology convention, because of course she is a psychologist15, and her partner cheats on her. Her partner, being respectable16, admits their transgression. Now, she understands that her partner cheated because she had been physically distant due to an increase in work. She knows that it wasn’t emotional infidelity, she knows that her partner still loves her, and she knows that her partner cheated simply for sexual satisfaction. She, being of incredible mental fortitude, is able to dismiss her emotions and does not have any remaining anger. But she still gets mad. Why? Because she wishes to use her anger as tool for communicating her displeasure at her partner’s infidelity in the hopes of increasing her bargaining power and deterring future events. Similarly, when someone insults you, you could dismiss that insult and live with the consequences of future insults or you could enact anger to convince17 the other person that insulting you is unacceptable.

I suppose what I’m trying to say is that anger has an evolutionary purpose and that it contributes to an individual’s success in society, and that if you disagree… well I’ll just be busy yelling profanities at internet posts.


Arden, R., Luciano, M., Deary, I. J., Reynolds, C. A., Pedersen, N. L., Plassman, B. L., McGue, M., Christensen, K., & Visscher, P. M. (2015). The association between intelligence and lifespan is mostly genetic. International Journal of Epidemiology, 44(6), 1-8. doi: 10.1093/ije/dyv112

Cialdini, R. (2015). Had to share [Image]. Retrieved from

Cleckley, H. M. (1988). The mask of sanity (5th ed.). August: Emily S. Cleckley.

Fessler, D. M. T. (2010). Madmen: An evolutionary perspective on anger and men’s violent responses to transgression. In Potegal, M. Editor (Ed.), International handbook of anger: Constituent and concomitant biological, psychological, and social processes (pp. 361-381). doi: 10.1007/978-0-387-89676-2_21

Roth, D. L. (1998). Crazy from the heat. Hyperion.

Oppenheimer, M. (2011). Married, with infidelities. The New York Times Magazine. Retrieved from:

Peri, G. (Fall 2013). The economic benefits of immigration. Berkeley Review of Latin American Studies. Retrieved from

Price, M. E., Dunn, J., Hopkins, S., & Kang, J. (2012). Anthropometric correlates of human anger. Evolution and Human Behavior, 33(3), 174-181. doi: 10.1016/j.evolhumbehav.2011.08.004                  

Rantala, M. J. (2014). Physical attractiveness as a signal of biological quality. Turku: Turku University.

Sell, A., Tooby, J., & Cosmides, L. (2009). Formidability and the logic of human anger. Psychological and Cognitive Sciences, 106(35), 15073–15078. doi: 10.1073/pnas.0904312106

Sprenger, C., Eippert, F., Finsterbusch, J., Bingel, U., Rose, M., & Büchel, C. (2012). Attention modulates spinal cord responses. Current Biology, 22(11), 1019-1022. doi: 10.1016/j.cub.2012.04.006

1. Most of these posts taking permanent residence on my mums’ newsfeed.

2. On second viewing this may actually be a screenshot of Windows Media Player’s visualizer.

3. The well-trained eye will notice how subtly I slipped the title in.

4. Sponsorships welcome.

5. Well, depending on how much I was truly enjoying the chocolate bar.

6. This analogy fell apart the moment I decided to not give a diabetic man my chocolate bar.

7. Oh, my bleeding heart.

8. Given that healthcare receives a percentage of the countries’ revenue.

9. Assuming fixed costs remain the same.

10. From an evolutionary point of view, all genes are hand-me-downs.

11. Engaging in the process of understanding the pain would, arguably, require thinking about the pain.

12. Despite its highly logical origins.

13. Although I suggest that you cannot control the feeling, you can control the actions you take in response to that feeling.

14. Some people certainly do benefit from reframing - I would argue that for the great majority of us anger is the default in such situations.

15. How extremely fortunate for us.

16. Respectable may not be the correct word to use – a lot can be said in support of Dan Savage’s monogamish (Oppenheimer, 2011).

17. If you are able to convince them without anger, then you definitely should. Anger should only be used when you need to emphasize your displeasure.

18. Despite my best efforts (including 10 minutes reverse image searching the post) I cannot find an earlier posting of this image.

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