Skip to main content

Verified by Psychology Today


Did Anger Evolve to Make Us Happy?

Anger's function may be to promote fairness and discourage exploitation.

Key points

  • The recalibration theory of anger sees anger not as a destructive force, but as a social adaptation.
  • In this model, anger is viewed as a recalibration mechanism that signals the need for corrective action.
  • Anger is a strategic tool that can be used to negotiate social hierarchies and assert boundaries.
Keira Burton/Pexels
Source: Keira Burton/Pexels

Anger is often seen as a negative emotion due to its association with aggression and hostility. Some psychologists, however, are promoting a more nuanced understanding of this complex and multifaceted emotion, by viewing it through the lens of a new theory in psychology: The recalibration theory of anger. This perspective emphasizes the adaptive nature of anger and the powerful role it plays in human behavior.

The Recalibration Theory of Anger

The recalibration theory of anger suggests that anger serves an evolutionary purpose by motivating individuals to address perceived injustices and violations of social norms. Anger functions as a recalibration mechanism, signaling when individuals' goals or expectations have been thwarted and prompting them to take corrective action.

Central to this psychological model is the idea that anger is not merely a destructive force but a strategic tool that can be employed to negotiate social hierarchies, assert boundaries, and protect one's interests. Anger is seen as an adaptive response that has evolved to promote survival and reproductive success. By mobilizing physiological and psychological resources, anger enables individuals to confront challenges and overcome obstacles in their environment.

Anger and Societal Institutions

New research has examined the computational structure of human anger, paying special attention to the fit between Western criminal justice systems and this primary emotion. This analysis reveals structural connections between anger and features of the criminal justice system. The authors offer an evolutionary hypothesis that shows how hatred can account for some failures in the criminal justice system. They conclude that, ultimately, “societal institutions will succeed or fail based on how compatible they are with human nature.”

Recalibration Sensitivity

One of the key components of the recalibration theory is the concept of "recalibration sensitivity." This refers to individuals' varying thresholds for experiencing anger in response to perceived injustices. Some people may have a low recalibration sensitivity, meaning they are easily angered by minor provocations, while others may have a higher threshold and only become angry in the face of more significant threats or violations. This variability in recalibration sensitivity is thought to be influenced by a combination of genetic predispositions, past experiences, and cultural factors.

The recalibration theory emphasizes the importance of social context in shaping the expression and interpretation of anger. Cultural norms and societal expectations play a significant role in determining which behaviors are deemed acceptable expressions of anger and which are considered taboo or inappropriate. For example, in some cultures, overt displays of anger may be seen as a sign of strength and assertiveness, while in others, they may be viewed as a sign of weakness or lack of self-control.

The experience of anger is not limited to individual psychology but also encompasses broader social dynamics. Anger can serve as a powerful social signal, communicating to others that a boundary has been crossed or a norm has been violated. In this way, anger can facilitate social cooperation and coordination by promoting fairness and discouraging exploitation or injustice.

Coping with the Dangerous Side of Anger

Despite its adaptive functions, anger can also have negative consequences when mismanaged or misdirected. Uncontrolled anger can lead to aggression, violence, and interpersonal conflict, undermining social harmony and cooperation. Therefore, it is essential to develop healthy strategies for managing anger and channeling it constructively toward addressing underlying issues or conflicts.

One strategy is cognitive reappraisal, which involves reframing the way we perceive and interpret situations that trigger anger. By adopting a more rational and objective perspective, individuals can reduce the intensity of their anger and approach conflicts with greater clarity and composure. Additionally, communication skills such as active listening and assertive expression can help individuals express their anger effectively without resorting to aggression or hostility.

Moreover, mindfulness practices, such as meditation and deep breathing exercises, can help individuals cultivate greater emotional awareness and self-regulation, enabling them to respond to anger triggers more skillfully. By learning to recognize the physiological signs of anger and practicing relaxation techniques, individuals can interrupt the automatic cycle of anger arousal and choose more adaptive responses.


The recalibration theory of anger offers a valuable framework for understanding the adaptive functions of this complex emotion. By recognizing anger as a recalibration mechanism that signals the need for corrective action, we can gain insights into its role in human behavior and social interaction. By developing healthy strategies for managing and expressing anger, we can harness its motivational power to promote fairness, assert boundaries, and foster positive social relationships. Ultimately, embracing a more nuanced understanding of anger can cultivate greater emotional intelligence and contribute to a more harmonious and compassionate society.

© 2024 Kevin Bennett PhD, all rights reserved


Bennett, K. (2017). Adaptive function of aggression. In Zeigler-Hill, V., & Shackelford, T.K. (Eds.), Encyclopedia of Personality and Individual Differences. Springer International Publishing AG.

Sell, A. & Sznycer, D. (2023). Societal institutions echo evolved human nature: An analysis of the Western criminal justice system and its relation to anger, Evolution and Human Behavior, 44:3, 210-221.

Sell, A. N. (2011). The recalibrational theory and violent anger, Aggression and Violent Behavior, 16 (5), 381-389.

More from Kevin Bennett Ph.D.
More from Psychology Today