Explaining Intense Episodes of Rage
The irrational thinking of the extremely angry.
Posted March 10, 2021 | Reviewed by Gary Drevitch
- It's difficult to study intense rage in a laboratory setting, partly because it would be unethical to push subjects to feel that kind of anger.
- Videos of people experiencing rage, however, offer some insights into how people enter and exit such states.
- When people feel especially vulnerable, they may work harder to rationalize irrational positions, potentially leading to episodes of rage which they recognize as wrong when the anger dissipates.
About once a month, someone sends me a video of a person losing their temper. “Hey Ryan, I know you study anger. What do you think of this?” they post on Facebook or in an email with a YouTube clip of someone going on a rant in a Home Depot parking lot, unleashing a racist tirade at a restaurant, or attacking someone on the side of the road after an incident of road rage. (You can hear some examples of those clips at the companion podcast episode for this post.)
I both love and hate watching these videos. l hate them because they so often include people being hurt or treated poorly. At the same time, though, they give me a glimpse into something I don’t get to see very often and something that is difficult to study in the lab: really intense episodes of rage.
For a long time, I’ve wondered about the irrational thoughts people have when they get really angry. I’m not talking about the “irrational beliefs” outlined by Albert Ellis that often lead to anger (e.g., other-directed shoulds, catastrophizing) but rather the often outrageous thoughts people express when they are really really angry. In the clips above, you hear people calling the police over having been given the middle finger, hurling insults because people kissed in public, and threatening to call U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement because they heard people speaking Spanish. Those are outrageous things to do and completely unreasonable positions to take. What’s more, when the angry people in those clips are challenged and even proven wrong, they don’t see it. They often double-down on their outrageous position.
Now, you could argue that these are just irrational and unreasonable people doing what they normally do and it was just caught on tape this time. You might be right. They might do this a lot (and in one of those cases, other videos have surfaced of them behaving in a similar way). But I suspect that’s not usually the case for two reasons. First, on a handful of occasions, the subject of the video has been identified and has spoken out later. They have expressed exactly what I’m talking about: that they just snapped and the video doesn’t reflect how they normally behave. Second, I have talked to many clients who have described losing control like this. These are relatively healthy and well-functioning people who tell me they simply lost control and behaved in a way they later regretted.
The thing that’s difficult about all this is that it’s nearly impossible to study in the lab. There have been attempts at this, using what are called mood inductions and articulated thoughts paradigms (see Eckhardt and Crane, 2008 for an example). The process here is to induce anger using a visualization procedure or something similar and then ask them to articulate the thoughts they are having when angered. The researcher records and codes those thoughts. This method, though, just can’t provide enough information for a simple reason: We can’t/shouldn’t try to make people this angry for research purposes. We can induce an angry mood, as we often do for research purposes, but not such an intense mood as to provoke this sort of irrationality.
Despite the absence of research on this phenomenon, I want to theorize on what might be happening in these situations. I think people feel extra vulnerable when they are angry or otherwise emotional. That vulnerability encourages them to work overtime to try and rationalize the positions—sometimes irrational positions—that got them there in the first place. In a sense, it’s a form of cognitive dissonance (Festinger, 1957). The possibility that they may be wrong makes them uncomfortable, especially if one of their core values is that it is important to be right, so they double-down on their irrational thoughts to justify their angry response.
This also explains why they so often see the light later. When the anger has dissipated and they feel less vulnerable, it’s easier for them to recognize how they may have been wrong, how their response may have been too intense, or even how they may have contributed to the situation.
Eckhardt, C.I, & Crane, C. (2008). Effects of alcohol intoxication and aggressivity on aggressive verbalizations during anger arousal. Aggressive Behavior, 34, 428–436.
Festinger, L. (1957). A theory of cognitive dissonance. Evanston, Ill: Row, Peterson.