Ulterior Motives

How goals, both seen and unseen, drive behavior

Social Competence and Anger

Learning to deal with people effectively has lots of positive benefits.

Life is full of frustrating people and situations. Driving in a car, you may get cut off by a driver on a cell phone. A colleague at work may fail to complete an important task that makes it harder for you to do your job. A friend may leave you out of a social event, which makes you feel excluded. 

Your long-term relationships are affected by how you deal with these frustrations. You may never see the bad driver again, but your driving habits after being cut off may affect the drivers around you. Getting angry with a friend or colleague can cause tension in that relationship. Talking with people who have let you down or hurt your feelings can help to repair the damage their actions caused.

An interesting paper in the October 2013 issue of Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin by Michael Robinson, Adam Fetterman, Kay Hopkins, and Sukumarakurup Krishnakumar examined the role of social competence in dealing with these kinds of everyday frustrations.

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The idea behind social competence is that there are many ways to react to situations, and some of them are more constructive than others. People who are better at identifying the most constructive ways to deal with situations may also do a better job of dealing with life’s frustrations.

As a measure of social competence, the authors identified many work-related scenarios that were dilemmas, but were not obviously frustrating. For example, an executive at work may find out that one of her employees is struggling with an alcohol problem. People are presented with four possible actions (such as forgiving the employee, asking about personal problems, and ignoring the situation) and are asked to rate the effectiveness of these responses. Their ratings are compared against the ratings of experts. Previous work suggested that this measure was a good predictor of behavior in a work environment.

In one study, the researchers compared people’s scores on this test of social competence to their score on a scale that measures how often they react aggressively when they get angry. The higher the scores on the test of social competence, the lower was people’s tendency react aggressively when angry. This relationship held, even after considering other core personality traits like agreeableness (which measures how much people want to get along with others) and emotional stability.

In another study, a group of people who had taken the test of social competence filled out a daily diary for 14 days. In this diary, they noted any frustrating events that happened during the day and then rated whether they engaged in aggressive behaviors like insulting someone, criticizing them, or arguing. They also noted any mental lapses like forgetting an appointment or having difficulty making a decision. Previous work shows that when people get frustrated, they experience more cognitive problems during the day.

Overall, people with low scores on the test of social competence were more aggressive and had more mental lapses than those with high scores on the test of social competence. This effect was particularly strong on days that had many frustrations in them in which people had interpersonal conflicts or did not get things that they wanted. 

Putting this all together, there is real value in learning how to deal effectively with other people.  Social competence involves being willing to talk to other people, to resolve differences through discussion, and to get to know what other people are thinking and feeling. When you are willing to engage in these behaviors (rather than ignoring problems or forgiving people without really resolving the problem), the less angry you are likely to be. Lower levels of anger mean that you will be less likely to lash out at other people and also less likely to experience the mental lapses that come along with stress and frustration.

The most hopeful part of these results is that social competence can be learned. It is a skill. If you find that you tend to deal badly with the frustrations in life, you can work with other people to find ways to resolve disagreements and to engage with other people. Just because you react aggressively now does not mean that you are doomed to a life of anger and conflict.

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Art Markman, Ph.D., is a cognitive scientist at the University of Texas whose research spans a range of topics in the way people think.

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