The 10 Key Ingredients of Anger

Why do we get angry?

Posted Dec 17, 2018

Anger (the red-eyed monster) is a basic emotion, and one of the seven deadly sins (Lerner& Tiedens, 2006). In addition to the evolutionary roots, cultural norms and personal cultivation contribute to the anger tendency (Litvak et al., 2010). However, in the end, anger confuses more than it helps. Anger makes people punitive, careless in their thought, and eager to take action (Nussbaum, 2018). 

1.       The focus in ager is a wrongful act. Anger is not just a physiological disturbance. We get angry at someone, about something. Anger is basically a judgment that one has been wronged or offended. For this reason, a common reply to anger is “Don’t be so judgmental.”

2.       A desire for punishment.  The action tendency of anger is aggression. Human beings have a general desire to see wrongdoers punished. There is a pleasure in balancing the horrible act that occurred. It makes us feel control rather than helpless.

3.       Anger is a byproduct of fear. Anger is often an outgrowth of fear.  For example, consider the mixed emotions in divorce. Husbands’ reactions are often dominated by anger. After a divorce, the stability and security that he was counting on suddenly vanished. A therapeutic goal in these situations is to help them recognize that some of their negative emotions may come from sadness, hurt feelings, and fear.

4.       Anger masks helplessness. Anger is often a mask for helplessness, and it is a way of reasserting control and self-respect. For instance, an event that causes anger typically involves someone blocking your goals or offending you or someone close to you. Anger is a way of not being helpless and aims at restoring lost control at least an illusion of it. 

5.       Ego injury. Anger is often about narcissistic injury (or self-importance). And the thought about status is what makes anger persist and fester. The obsessive focus on relative status makes perfect sense for the act of vengeance. Retaliation puts the other person down and the self up (the zero-sum game).

6.       An urge to blame. When we are hurt and angry, we want someone to be blamed (or held responsible) for our pain. We feel superior by blaming others.  It pleases our ego to believe that any bad event is someone’s fault. Anger is a distraction of attention from solving the real problem. Anger is easy, but it is hard work to come up with a constructive solution.

7.        A substitute for grieving.  Anger becomes an appealing substitute for grieving. Anger often hijacks the necessary grieving process. Grieving and facing life after a loss eventually moves us forward in life.

8.       Anger is the primary emotion of justice. Anger is built into our genes to punish the cheater in the game of cooperation. There are times when it is perfectly right to get angry. For example, after being humiliated in public, getting turned down for a promotion that one clearly deserved, or being repeatedly bullied, one has the right to get angry.

9.       Anger instills confidence and clouds judgments. Angry decision makers typically process information in distorted ways, fail to consider alternative options before acting. Anger triggers optimism about oneself. It triggers a bias toward seeing the self as powerful and capable.

10.    Joyful wrath. Some people use anger, and the threat of their anger, to intimidate and manipulate others.  People tend to pay particular attention to angry faces. How did they learn to do this?  Emotions are habits—the product of practice and repetition. It is very rare for a person to get angry just once. They become addicted to their emotions. They learn to energize themselves by getting angry. Like other addictive substances, anger may be rewarding in the anticipation of rewards but harmful in the long run. The rush and optimism of anger may lead people to make unwise choices in which they fail to take perspectives of others.

Forgiveness. There is a better alternative. The proper management of anger is the attitude of forgiveness. Forgiveness is a journey that liberates the self from anger and vindictive wishes. The angry person is always well advised to begin moving beyond anger as soon as possible, in the direction of the long-term goal of developing happiness and self-respect.

Another strategy is to cultivate a sense of humor by stepping out of one’s own sense of superiority. Martha Nussbaum (2016) recommends, as a way of coping with extreme anger, that we cultivate an attitude of detachment toward ourselves so that we simply don’t perceive what happened to us as the most world-shattering thing. As indicated in the ancient book, The Way of Life by Lao-Tze: If you never assume importance, You never lose it.


Lerner, J. S., & Tiedens, L. Z. (2006). Portrait of the angry decision maker: How appraisal tendencies shape  anger's influence on cognition.  Journal of Behavioral Decision Making, 19, 115–137.

Litvak PM, Lerner JS, Tiedens LZ, Shonk K (2010). Fuel in the fire: How anger impacts judgment and decision-making In: Potegal M, Stemmler G, Spielberger C., eds International Handbook of Anger: Constituent andconcomitant biological, psychological, and social processes New York: Springer; pp. 287–310.

Nuassbaum, Martha (2016) Anger and Forgiveness: Resentment, Generosity, and Justice New York: Oxford University Press.