By Joann Ellison Rodgers, published on March 11, 2014 - last reviewed on June 9, 2016
Anger gets no respect. It’s so yoked to “management” that we give it little consideration on its own. We aspire to the serene sangfroid in comedian John Cleese’s description of the British as a people who rarely get more than “miffed” or “peeved,” and haven’t escalated to “a bit cross” since World War II when the Blitz cut tea supplies. Yoda framed the view well: “Anger leads to hate. Hate leads to suffering.” Conclusion: The human race would be far better off without it altogether.
A growing cadre of social and evolutionary biologists, psychologists, and brain scientists begs to differ. With newly detailed neural maps of brain systems that underlie feelings and energize us to act on our goals, they have seriously dented the long-held view of anger as an all-time destructive and negative state worthy mostly of suppression. More to the point, they have uncovered its upside, and proposed a psychological model of anger framed as a positive, a force of nature that has likely fueled the ambitions and creativity of the famous and infamous.
Beethoven, for example, reportedly beat his students but still got the best from them. Mark Rothko’s fury at pop art powered his own work and drove his towering mentorship of students. Marlon Brando was an angry young man whose anger later in life informed his bully pulpit for social justice. And Rosie O’Donnell built her career on a foundation of foul-mouthed feistiness—and later on efforts to control it.
Researchers are amassing evidence that anger is a potent form of social communication, a logical part of people’s emotional tool kit, an appetitive force that not only moves us toward what we want but fuels optimism, creative brainstorming, and problem solving by focusing mind and mood in highly refined ways. Brainwise, it is the polar opposite of fear, sadness, disgust, and anxiety—feelings that prompt avoidance and cause us to move away from what we deem unpleasant. When the gall rises, it propels the irate toward challenges they otherwise would flee and actions to get others to do what they, the angry, wish.
“We need anger, and there are negative consequences for those without it,” says Aaron Sell, a social psychologist at Australia’s Griffith University, who, with pioneering evolutionary psychologists Lena Cosmides and John Tooby at the University of California Santa Barbara Center for Evolutionary Psychology, has helped lead the assault on old thinking about anger. It feels rewarding because it moves us closer to our goals. Wielded responsibly, scientists say, it even thwarts aggression.
GRRRR: The Neural Roots of Anger
The idea that anger is a positive feeling is not exactly new. Aristotle in 350 BC wrote that “the angry man is aiming at what he can attain, and the belief that you will attain your aim is pleasant.” People resort to “mild to moderate” anger as often as several times a day and at least several times a week, finds James Averill, a professor of psychology at the University of Massachusetts. Such universality and frequency suggest that only our Stone Age forebears with the capacity to call forth anger pretty regularly, and get rewarded for it, survived to have descendants with the same makeup—us. “It’s no surprise” that babies are born ready to express anger, notes Sell, because it’s “the output of a cognitive mechanism engineered by natural selection.” Nature favored and preserved anger for the same reasons it conserved love, sex, fear, sadness, and anxiety: survival and advantage.
Biologically, when people are aroused to some degree of anger and let off steam, their heart rate, blood pressure, and testosterone level all increase. That might suggest that anger freaks us out and harms us. But in fact, levels of the stress hormone cortisol drop, suggesting that anger helps people calm down and get ready to address a problem—not run from it. In studies in which she and her colleagues induced indignation among volunteer subjects, Jennifer Lerner, a psychologist at Harvard, found that anger diminished the effects of cortisol on heart reactivity.
Although anger has long been considered a fully negative emotion, recent neuroscience has overturned that view. Scientists know that two basic motivational forces underlie all behavior—the impulse to approach, or move toward something desired, and the impulse to withdraw, or move away from unpleasantness. Hardwired in the brain, these behaviors are headquartered in the frontal cortex, which acts as the executive branch of the emotions. Brain imaging and electrical studies of the brain consistently show that the left frontal lobe is crucial to establishing approach behaviors that push us to pursue desired goals and rewards in rational, logical, systematic, and ordered ways, and that activation of the right frontal cortex is tied to the more negative, withdrawal motivational system, marked by inhibition, timidity, and avoidance of punishment and threat.
Brain scans show that anger significantly activates the left anterior cortex, associated with positive approach behaviors. Anger, moreover, appears to be downright rewarding, even pleasurable, in studies showing predominant left-brain activation when angry subjects perceive they can make things better.
“Expecting to be able to act to resolve the [angering] event should yield greater approach motiva-tional intensity,” contend social psychologists Charles Carver of the University of Miami and Eddie Harmon-Jones of the University of New South Wales, longtime collaborators in anger scholarship. In a variety of studies, Harmon-Jones has found that subjects who score high on a scale that measures a tendency to anger display a characteristic asymmetry in the prefrontal cortex—they exhibit higher levels of left anterior (frontal) EEG activity and lower levels of right anterior activation. Randomly insulting subjects, compared with treating them neutrally in verbal communications, stimulates greater relative left frontal activity.
Spurred by the findings on anger, neuroscientists have begun to move away from thinking of any emotion as either negative or positive, preferring instead to characterize emotions by “motivational direction”—whether they stimulate approach behaviors or avoidance/withdrawal behaviors. Viewed within this framework, they explain, it’s not strange that anger produces happiness. “The case of anger,” reports a team of Spanish scientists led by Neus Herrero, “is different because although it is considered or experienced as negative, based on findings of increased left brain activity it produces a motivation of closeness, or approach.” When we get mad, in other words, we “show a natural tendency to get closer to what made us angry to try to eliminate it.”
Herrero looked at psychological and biological measures—heart rate (increase), testosterone levels (increase), cortisol levels (decrease), brain activation (asymmetric left activation)—at the same time he induced anger. The findings support the notion that nature intends us to respond to anger in ways that increase motivation to approach what is sending heart rate up and cortisol down and left brains into thinking up creative ways to make it go away. In short, venting calms us enough to think straight.
Harmon-Jones’s studies add detail. “When individuals believed there was nothing they could do to rectify an angering situation, they still reported being angry,” he reports, “but they did not show increased left frontal activity compared to right frontal activity.” Overall, he adds, it’s most accurate to say that anger is associated with left frontal activity only when the anger is associated with approach inclinations, the perception that there is an opportunity to fix the situation, at the least cost to oneself.
Director of the University of Wisconsin’s influential Laboratory for Affective Neuroscience, Richard Davidson has studied the neural origins of emotions for 40 years. His pioneering investigations of the asymmetric brain response to anger show that the emotion is “intrinsically rewarding, with a positive quality that mobilizes resources, increases vigilance, and facilitates the removal of obstacles in the way of our goal pursuits, particularly if the anger can be divorced from the propensity to harm or destroy.”
The Real Function of Anger
Nature wired us over time to get angry when others insult or exploit us or, in the jargon of evolutionary psychologists, impose too high a cost on us (in our opinion) to get an unjustifiably (again in our opinion) small benefit for themselves. So states the Recalibration Theory of Anger put forth by Cosmides, Tooby, and Sell. Moreover, they contend, anger was designed by natural selection to nonconsciously regulate our response to personal conflicts of interest in ways that help us bargain to our advantage. In other words, anger prods the aggrieved to behave in ways that increase the weight the wrongdoer puts on her value and welfare. If the angry person is successful, it not only produces benefits (“I win!”), but also pleasure—enough to reinforce deploying anger this way repeatedly.
Using studies that probe people’s true emotions by gauging reactions to hypothetical scenarios, along with argument analysis, computerized measures of facial expressions, and voice analysis, Sell finds that anger erupts naturally when someone puts a “too low value, or weight, on your welfare relative to their own when making decisions or taking actions that affect both of you.” Sell and his colleagues call this index the Welfare Tradeoff Ratio or WTR. And the purpose of the anger is to recalibrate that ratio.
Anger is likely the primary way people have of addressing conflicts of interest and other “resource conflicts,” says Sell. Anger allows us to detect our own value in any conflicting interaction, then motivates us to get others to rethink our positions, to pay a lot more attention to what it will cost us to get what we want—and whether it’s worth the cost.
Sell proposes that anger essentially makes the target of the anger “less willing to impose costs and more willing to tolerate costs.” Studies conducted with Cosmides and Tooby show that anger, by WTR measure, is more prevalent in physically strong men, who would be perceived as able to get away with anger as a bargaining tactic. The trio has also found when two parties both want exclusive access to, or the lion’s share of, something, arguments seasoned with anger work well in divvying up the spoils in ways that allow for winners without destroying the losers.
Recalibration theory explains a lot of everyday human behavior in which anger serves a positive purpose as a social value indicator and regulator, and ironically, perhaps, as a check on aggression. “My classmate uses my sleeve to wipe ketchup off his chin in order to keep his shirt clean,” Sell offers as an example. Such behavior arouses anger not because he is really harmed by it (no one dies of a ketchup stain), but because it’s an indication his classmate has little respect for his worth. The ketchup wipee might respond with a laugh if the wiper is a buddy, but if not, showing anger gets the afflicted to behave in ways that increase the value the wrongdoer puts on him by escalating the social cost of misbehaving.
Standing up for your shirtsleeve is standing up for yourself. You don’t need to throw a punch; an angry frown or a loud “Hey!” will probably recalibrate. Anger, then, can be a way of increasing the likelihood of evening out respectful relationships, even among friends—in essence, encouraging cooperation. Without anger, Sell adds, there would be no emotional environment in which to persuade, negotiate, and progress in a relatively safe way without overt war and mayhem at every frustration.
“I keep finding that anger, across different settings, can have positive consequences,” says Gerben van Kleef, professor of social psychology at the University of Amsterdam. He has found that negotiators led to believe that their counterpart is angry are more likely to make concessions, a nice edge for those especially good at reading and calculating WTRs. Our innate anger system guides the angered person to do things that encourage an offender to treat the angry person better by some combination of conferring benefits or lowering costs.
If there’s a take-home message to all the good news about anger, Davidson says it might be that while anger can be healthy or toxic depending on the situation at hand, people should not work too hard to suppress it. “In general, it’s better to let emotions unfold than to externally suppress them,” he says.
“Ultimately,” insists Harvard’s Lerner, “research will provide evidence for the view that the most adaptive and resilient individuals have highly flexible emotional response systems. They are neither chronically angry nor chronically calm.” Anger, she adds, is good for you, “as long as you keep the flame low.”
Anger—the feeling—is one thing. Fury—its red-faced, fist-first expression—is another. Fury is hardly a useful modality, but anger has positive value in our emotional lives. Here’s what that means for most of us:
Anger offers a sense of control.
If the true function of anger is to impose costs or withhold benefits from others to increase our Welfare Tradeoff Ratio, it should follow that people who have enhanced abilities to inflict costs are more likely to prevail in conflicts, consider themselves entitled to better treatment, think better of themselves, and be prone to anger. In other words, they control their destinies more than less angry people do.
Psychologist Aaron Sell and coworkers found that strong men report more success resolving interpersonal conflicts in their favor than weak men and are, by their own account, more prone to anger. They endorse personal aggression and are likely to approve the use of military force in global conflicts. The more a woman considers herself attractive—a counterpart to masculine might— the more she is prone to anger, feelings of entitlement, and success in getting her way. Anger may promote cooperation.
The association between attractiveness in women or strength among men and “entitlement anger” also suggests that anger enables cooperative relationships by means of getting two parties to “yes” before hostilities break out.
Harvard’s Jennifer Lerner examined Americans’ reactions to the terrorist attacks of 9/11 and found that feelings of anger evoked a sense of certainty and control on a mass scale, helping to minimize paralyzing fear and allowing people to come together for common cause. Those who became angry were less likely to anticipate future attacks, while those who were fearful expected more attacks.
Anger preserves a sense of control and the desire to defend what’s yours, but only insofar as it leaves both parties more or less OK, because you may need the hungry oaf who stole your dinner to help you hunt down the next meal.
Anger fuels optimism.
Boston College psychologist Brett Ford has found that anxiety drives people to be extremely vigilant about threats, while a state of excitement makes them hyperaware of rewards within their reach. Anger increases visual attention to rewarding information. It helps people home in on what they hope things can be, rather than on an injury. Fearful people not only have “strikingly different” assessments of the level of risk in the environment compared to angry people, their fear leads to higher perceptions of risk. Anger enables leadership.
Dutch psychologist Gerben van Kleef has found that anger deployed by a leader gets underlings to perform well, but only if the underlings are high in their motivation to read the leader. Cheerfulness in a leader is more effective among teams with low interest in reading emotional tea leaves.
Beware of becoming a volcanic Steve Jobs, however. Eventually, the strategy of using either consistent or intermittent explosive anger becomes obvious and may be ignored or resisted. Jobs was notoriously and chronically angry, and he used that emotion to exact extraordinary performance from his most creative employees. But finally, his anger lost its impact and became so dangerous to his effectiveness that he was forced out of the company he had founded.
“If you get a bang for the buck for anger and you don’t ever get punished for it and it gets you what you want, you can lose control of the benefit and still keep at it when it’s self-destructive,” says Michael Cataldo, a psychologist at Johns Hopkins.
Anger boosts focus on the practical.
Approach motivation toward anger-related objects occurs only when people perceive they can actually get a reward, finds psychologist Henk Arts of Utrecht University in the Netherlands. In the absence of such a reward context, avoidance motivation prevails. The findings suggest that our anger system is pretty fine-tuned to go after the gettable, not the impossible.
Anger abets creativity and ambition.
After establishing that anger often accompanies brainstorming, in which people throw conflicting ideas out for debate, a team of Dutch researchers elicited anger, sadness, or a neutral state from subjects, and then had them brainstorm about ways to protect the environment. Those in the anger group had lots more ideas and more creative ideas than sad or neutral participants—although, over time, things evened out.
Consider the work of superior talents who were famously angry at the world: Francis Bacon’s screaming faces. David Mamet’s masterful plays, Adrienne Rich’s feminist poem, “Diving Into the Wreck,” and anything by Virginia Woolf.
It’s likely that anger stirs energizing hormones and focuses attention, all while disinhibiting social interactions, creating less “politically correct” behavior.
Anger is emotionally intelligent.
People who prefer to feel useful emotions (such as anger) even when they are unpleasant to experience—when confronting others, for example—“tend to be higher in emotional intelligence” than people who prefer to feel happiness, Brett Ford and Maya Tamir report. “Wanting to feel bad may be good at times and vice versa.”
Anger aids understanding of others.
In advance of an Israeli-Palestinian summit conference convened by President George W. Bush in 2007, a team of Israeli and American psychologists set out to see whether anger would have constructive effects. Experimentally inducing anger in Israelis toward Palestinians several weeks before the summit increased support for making compromises among those with low levels of hatred. Even when anger was evoked just days before the summit, it led to increased support for compromise in the same low-hatred group.
Anger makes people more willing to accept risks, a major feature of leadership.