Why Do We Lash Out?

It might be more than a bad mood.

By Shira Polan, published on September 5, 2017 - last reviewed on November 6, 2017

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After banging our heads against the figurative wall to try to solve a problem, we may feel tempted to take out frustration on an unlucky bystander. A report in the Journal of Experimental Social Psychology proposes one reason for this behavior: It could be a way to renew our sense of competence. 

"We know from other studies that people want agency," says psychologist Pontus Leander of the University of Groningen. "So when a goal is thwarted, we're highly motivated to get affirmation that we can still produce effects."

To explore whether such a desire drives unfriendly acts, Leander and Tanya Chartrand, of Duke University, first sought to instill a goal-oriented mindset in certain study participants, priming them with words related to achievement. Participants then took on an anagram task that was either easy or frustratingly difficult. 

Finally, participants were asked to select the puzzles that students in a different study would attempt for a cash reward. On average, those who were first primed with achievement-related words chose to assign a greater number of hard puzzles to others if they had faced a frustrating task themselves.

A follow-up study supported the idea that giving someone a hard time was not the ultimate point. Again, goal-primed participants who had grappled with a challenging task seemed to act out: They were more likely than others to press a button that blocked someone else from winning money. But they were also more likely to press the button when it helped that person's odds. In short, frustrated people may have an urge to do something effectively--whether it makes someone else's day better or worse.