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Is Anger Addictive? Is it Worse Online?

Research on anger explains why the online world can be so toxic.

Source: freestocks/Pexels
Source: freestocks/Pexels

Can we actually become addicted to anger? We certainly seem to be living in an angry era. And when I was researching my book, Can You Hear Me? How to Connect with People in a Virtual World, I unearthed lots of evidence that the human connection that social media offers is more fragile, more superficial, and more prone to negativity than the face-to-face kind. So if social media is replacing our real-world connections, then it is inevitable that we’ll become angrier.

But could it be addictive – something that we start to seek out? If so, then creating a better world – weaning ourselves off the anger, in essence – will be much harder than you’d think. Addictions of any kind are hard to kick. I’m still trying to wean myself off sugar, but there’s so much of it, and it’s so good! How else am I to get through the three hours of the Avengers Final Whatever? Give me M&Ms!

Sadly, it seems that anger may be habit-forming in the same sense that sugar is. Both get a big part of their mental punch from dopamine, the feel-good hormone that’s also released when we do good stuff like eating good food, cuddling, and thinking about not eating kale.

That’s not technically an addiction like those related to heroin or tobacco, but it’s a strong compulsion nonetheless, as anyone trying to pass up that second cookie at the buffet knows. (Me.)

Our emotions evolved in a time long before our world moved online, of course. They developed to help us respond quickly and efficiently to the kind of repetitive dangers that existed back then – tigers, snakes, and other people with clubs. As a result, some emotions are more powerful, addictive, and contagious than others—the most basic ones: anger, anxiety, fear, and also happiness and joy. The reasons most likely have to do with the basic hardwired questions we humans ask ourselves, questions that are highly dependent on our unconscious minds, a quick read, and empathy: Friend or foe? Eat or be eaten? Powerful or subservient?

What happens in the virtual world when you make experiencing these basic emotions and sharing them more difficult because the feedback loop we get easily and naturally face-to-face isn’t present? Anxiety and fear top the list of emotions that get lost. But we replace them with remembered anxieties and fears because that’s our default state. Negative emotions exist to keep us out of trouble and, once we’re in trouble, to help us escape it as fast as possible. Dull the fight-or-flight response, and you dull your survival abilities. So when those are stripped out, our minds put them back in, assuming the worst at all times.

Put all this together, and you get a powerful mix of brain structure, chemical response, and survival instincts all working together to take the signals from the new half-real, half-virtual world we live in now and turn them into an addictive mess of anger and anxiety. Fury is addictive, and the online world is more furious and more addictive than the face-to-face one. And we only have ourselves to blame. As a wise comic said once, years ago, in words that are truer than ever: “we have met the enemy, and he is us.”

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