How Anger Spreads Like a Virus
Research shows how pain and anger infect on social media and in relationships.
Posted Sep 25, 2020
We live in a time of global contagion, and it isn’t just a virus that is jumping from person to person. Anger is infectious, as touchy people become offended, outraged, then pay their wrath forward. This happens when biases are challenged or confirmed online, or when buttons get pushed in intimate relationships.
For example, researchers studied the emotional content of social media posts and found that anger is much more likely than other emotions (such as joy, disgust, or sadness) to spread electronically. These investigators looked at over seventy million tweets on the Chinese site Weibo (similar to Twitter). They labeled these posts according to their emotional content and mapped how each was retweeted and responded to. Anger was by far the most influential emotion that riled up readers and got forwarded on. As is clear from our digitally connected world, even without body language or in-person tone, angry words have the power to ignite and spread fire.
This also occurs in close relationships. For example, have you ever been in a foul mood then seen your partner become tense and irritable? Like many negative emotions, anger is a response to a problem that often expands and creates new problems. Does this sound familiar?
“Why are you upset?”
“You look unhappy with me.”
“No, I am fine! Sheesh!”
“I can tell you are not fine.”
“Dang it, I am!”
“Anyone can see that you are mad!”
I saw this power of anger play out in one couple I worked with clinically, where old wounds were still sensitive, and rage was used on defense and offense. Wayne (names changed) was one mad cowboy. He was a small-town rancher who drank heavily, wore his jeans ironed, and was nursing a broken heart. His ex-girlfriend Lacy was a friendly waitress who wore eye-watering perfume. Wayne was particularly hurt by this break-up, because he had just given her brand-spanking-new breast implants. With these developments, she decided she was out of his league and went looking for a man who “would treat her better and wasn’t such a drunk.” She agreed to join Wayne for therapy, even though she told us her mind was made up. These two used anger like experts, and had a loud history of attacking, wounding, and igniting each other’s rage.
Our sessions were a minefield. We would jump from topic to topic, and soon one would explode. These eruptions were astounding in their ferocity. Lacy would scream, calling him lazy, irresponsible, or stupid, and he would retaliate with words sharp as spurs. He criticized her fidelity, looks, and her family. She would seethe, abruptly widen her eyes, and give him a withering stare. Like Medusa’s gaze, this would turn him to stone. He would freeze, clench his jaw and his face would darken to purple. I would try to calm them down and help them reflect, but soon another hair-trigger would be tripped, and we would all be ducking and shrieking again. Afterward, I would go to the office next door and apologize for the noise.
Wayne and Lacy demonstrated the intense and contagious nature of anger. They had a hypersensitivity to each other related to their previous traumas. Both came from volatile and abusive backgrounds and had unhealed emotional injuries. Most bullies have been bullied, and these two fit this bill. Even though their old hurts were not physical, they left a psychic mark. The brain experiences criticism and rejection in the same place as physical pain (the anterior cingulate cortex). Verbal attacks hurt. Just like we instinctively block our face from an incoming projectile, we flinch at cutting words. The brain registers verbal abuse as pain, as does the body. It floods with cortisol, becomes tense, and aches. Couples who are verbally aggressive will have more anxiety, pain, and misery. As one wise spiritual leader (Yoda the Muppet) said, “Fear leads to anger. Anger leads to hate. Hate leads to suffering.”
Anger is the path to the dark side, and as people give in to their rage, it infects others as well, both globally and intimately. It is better to calm down, speak thoughtfully, and soothe others than spread the virus of anger.
Rui Fan, Jichang Zhou, Yan Chen, Ke Xu. “Anger is More Influential than Joy: Sentiment Correlation,” Weibo PLoS ONE 9, no. 10 (2014): e110184.
The brain research is summarized in: Daniel Goleman, Social Intelligence (New York: Random House, 2007).