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Are Adult Public Outbursts Here to Stay?

With stressed adults acting out publicly, kindness may be the best solution.

Key points

  • Adults misbehaving in public is on the rise. Psychological science helps us to understand this increasing problem.
  • When adults behave badly in public, psychologically informed interventions can deescalate the situation.
  • Treating people with respect, compassion, and validating their feelings can help stressed adults who act out in public.

Maybe you have seen it firsthand. In grocery stores and restaurants, on airplanes, at sporting events, and certainly on social media often highlighted in news reports, many adults are acting out over COVID restrictions such as masks, vaccinations, and social distancing requirements.

Are adult temper tantrums the new normal?

Talk to anyone who regularly works with the public, and they have plenty of horror stories to tell. Not only are these tantrums disrespectful, but they often turn violent. No wonder so many people are quitting their jobs during what has been referred to as the COVID “great resignation.” Who wants to deal with the public right now? So, what’s up with such awful behavior?

Several empirically researched and well-established psychological and behavioral theories can help us better understand this phenomenon. They also suggest that this kind of behavior may worsen before it gets better. So, it becomes critical to be aware of these theories and trends and be better prepared to do what we can to turn this trend around.

First, the frustration-aggression theory informs us that stress added to ongoing frustration results in aggression. Numerous empirical research studies have demonstrated this relationship between frustration, stress, and violence. COVID and all of the other terrible things going on in our society, such as racism, climate change, economic inequality, and political divisiveness, have frustrated us for a long time.

This frustration gets even worse when we expect things to get better and then they don’t. Just when we think COVID is coming to an end, for example, we get hit with another new variant (Delta, Omicron) that often eliminates the many public health gains that have been made. Progress followed by disappointing regression means more stress and frustration for everyone.

Second, observational learning theory tells us that when high profile and high-status people's bad behavior is positively reinforced, others will emulate the behavior. For example, the behavior of nationally known politicians, news personalities, celebrities, and sports stars, will result in many other incidents of people behaving in the same upsetting and aggressive manner.

If high-profile people are allowed to get away with misbehavior, disrespect, and violence, others will feel justified in their own bad behavior. When enough people do so, then acting up towards others becomes expected and even normal.

Finally, social comparison theory informs us that we constantly judge our own lives by comparing our situations with others. In the age of social media, there are always friends and acquaintances who post and highlight lives that we wish we could have, even during COVID. For example, while we are quarantining at home, we view friends partying in exotic locations, seemingly oblivious to COVID restrictions.

This experience of upward social comparisons adds to our despair and frustration. In the age of social media, many people face these upward comparisons every time they view their newsfeeds. When despair, frustration, and upward comparisons are experienced, problematic acting out behaviors are expected.

Stress in America is off the charts. Ongoing research conducted by the American Psychological Association has carefully and empirically investigated this phenomenon finding that stress levels increase.

The Surgeon General released an unprecedented advisory last month highlighting the tsunami of mental health problems plaguing the nation with anxiety, depression, suicidality, substance abuse, and other ills skyrocketing, especially among youth.

With the recent Omicron variant sweeping the country, stress, frustration, and bad behavior will worsen.

David Brooks ends his recent opinion piece, “America Is Falling Apart at the Seams” for the New York Times with,

Americans have been acting in fewer pro-social and relational ways and in more antisocial and self-destructive ways. But why? As a columnist, I’m supposed to have some answers. But I just don’t right now. I just know the situation is dire.

Dire indeed! What can we do? There are no simple answers, but perhaps we can do some simple things to be part of the solution rather than the problem.

We can all take a deep breath and remind ourselves that we are potentially vulnerable to turning bad behavior if the conditions are just right. After all, who isn’t frustrated, stressed, and upset about COVID and everything else that is going on now?

We might try to thoughtfully and strategically avoid these potentially volatile encounters as much as we can as well. Rather than escalating these incidents by taking the bait when someone starts to act poorly, we can try to approach vulnerable others by acknowledging their frustrations and upset but helping to encourage civil, prosocial, and potentially face-saving behavior.

Validating their frustration and respectfully offering a suggested behavioral path forward that would deescalate the situation is a helpful strategy. Additionally, viewing others as sacred or as brothers and sisters in distress would go a long way too.

It is easy to demonize those who upset us and categorize them as “losers” or worse. Avoiding the demonization of those we do not like is critically important in finding a path towards reconciliation and resolution.

You might not like certain people, but demonizing them as “the other” is dangerous and makes people more prone to violence. We have seen too many examples of this throughout history as well as during current times.

People often defuse their rage when they are approached with understanding, compassion, and respect acknowledging and validating their frustrations yet helping to direct them to a productive, prosocial, and problem-solving resolution.

While it seems out of fashion now, one superpower that we all have readily available is kindness. Kindness goes a long way to defuse stressful situations when expressed with respect and compassion, even under difficult circumstances guiding the adult having an outburst to a better and more adult-like resolution.

Many people are at the end of their rope with COVID along with all the other troubles of our society now. This will likely put many people over the top in aggressive behavior.

Taking a deep breath, being kind, and offering a prosocial and respectful approach might help stressed and frustrated adults who have outbursts maintain their composure.

A version of this post also appears in the San Jose Mercury News.

More from Thomas G. Plante Ph.D., ABPP
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