In college, I studied abroad in Tartu, Estonia, and Fez, Morocco. After countless hours of walking and people-watching, I came to appreciate the starkly different emotional landscapes in both countries, especially in the case of anger.
One night in Tartu, I saw two men arguing in a city park. They exchanged words for a few minutes, now and again raising their voices. All of a sudden, one man clenched his fists and held them up like a boxer, ready to fight. I didn’t realize the Estonians were truly angry until they nearly came to blows.
Two months later, while making my way through Fez’s crowded medina, I became vaguely aware of distressed voices behind me. Suddenly, two young men burst into the street. They screamed and lunged at each other, twirling down the street in a furious melee. Several bystanders pulled the men apart, and then everyone continued on their way, as if nothing had happened.
Is anger an innate human emotion, an evolutionarily hardwired part of our behavioral repertoire? Or is anger a subroutine of our cultural programming, acquired without awareness?
In the 1872 book The Expression of Emotion in Man and Animals, Charles Darwin used technological advances of the day in photography and physiometry to undertake a scientific examination of the emotions, including anger.
“Under moderate anger the action of the heart is a little increased, the colour heightened, and the eyes become bright,” he wrote. “The respiration is likewise a little hurried; and as all muscles for this function act in association, the wings of the nostrils are somewhat raised to allow of a free indraught of air.” Darwin concluded that anger is universal among humans and has its precursors in the expressions of primates and other mammals.
Darwin compared human and animal expressions of anger, suggesting that human anger is rooted in our evolutionary past.
More than a century has passed, and Darwin has been proved largely correct. When expressing anger, people everywhere experience increases in heart rate, blood pressure, respiration, and blood flow to the limbs. Angry people, whether in Canada or Tokyo, lower their brows, glare intensely with their eyes, and tighten their lips. From a Darwinian perspective, anger is a package of physiological responses that prepares the individual for conflict, from fighting to biting to running away.
The physical experience of anger may be similar for all humans, but different cultures have different ways of expressing it. In 2008, psychologist David Matsumoto and his colleagues examined the relationship between emotional expression and cultural values. They surveyed more than 5,000 people in 32 countries, asking them how they should behave when feeling a variety of emotions in different social situations.
In individualistic societies like the United States, where personal goals and self-sufficiency are valued highly, respondents typically said people should express anger fully toward close friends and relatives but hide or tone down their anger toward those they aren't as close to. Respondents in collectivistic societies like Japan, where relationships and group goals are valued highly, said just the opposite.
Matsumoto and his colleagues believe that, in individualistic cultures, making new acquaintances is seen as a good thing. So individualists tend to control their anger when interacting with people outside their immediate circle because it's the diplomatic thing to do. In collectivistic cultures, however, harmonious relationships with the in-group are far more important than networking with strangers, so people strive to exercise emotional control within their close social circle. Expressing anger toward outsiders also strengthens “us versus them” distinctions and solidifies one’s position within the group.
Cultural values can also influence one’s physical experience of emotion. In one study, Chinese Canadians and European Canadians were interviewed by a rude and obnoxious experimenter. Both groups were angry at first, as measured by blood pressure and a self-report questionnaire, but the Chinese Canadians lowered their blood pressure and level of anger more quickly. It seems Chinese Canadians have a strategy to deal with emotion that actually dampens the physiological and subjective experience of anger.
So anger is a complex feeling—biologically hardwired yet culturally variable. It is a vestige of our evolutionary past, yet also part of our cultural present.
And because it would be a shame to leave you without any practical applications, here's a piece of advice: Next time you find yourself feeling angry, take a moment to marvel at this emotion, intersection of nature and nurture that it is. Your feelings of anger will likely dissipate. Why? Because we can’t think about anger and feel it at the same time. When we intellectualize and reflect on the cause of an emotional reaction, the reaction subsides.
Anderson, J.C. (2006). Influence of culture on cardiovascular response to anger provocation. (Doctoral dissertation). Retrieved from UBC Retrospective Theses Digitization Project. (2010-01-16T21:26:28Z )
Darwin, C. (1872). The expression of emotion in man and animals. London: John Murray.
Matsumoto, D., Yoo, S.H., & Chung, J. (2010). The expression of anger across cultures. International Handbook of Anger, 125-37.
Matsumoto, D., Yoo, S.H., & Fontaine, J. (2008). Mapping expressive differences around the world: The relationship between emotional display rules and individualism versus collectivism. Journal of Cross-Cultural Psychology, 39(1), 55-74.