The Gift of Anger

4 things anger is good for and 4 pitfalls that can ruin it.

Posted Oct 04, 2014

I haven’t read Gavin de Becker’s The Gift of Fear, but it seems like a great idea to recognize that this pesky emotion can actually protect us from dangerous situations if only we would attend to it and not spend so much effort trying to make it go away. I assume he also stresses that, largely as a result of scaring people unnecessarily, we sometimes get afraid even when we needn’t. In a recent conversation with Lisa Solursh and Matt Abbrecht, we kicked around the idea of anger also being a gift. (For one thing, anger lets you kick around an idea until it sheds its crust of politeness and reveals its inner truth, if any.)

Fear is characterized by the fact that distance from something becomes reinforcing because of an expectation of being harmed. Anger is the state in which harm to something becomes reinforcing. (In critical thinking, it’s propositions that get harmed.) It’s probably never a good idea to express anger overtly and emotionally, just as it’s rarely a good idea with fear. When you are afraid, you should act on it, but if you act on it fearfully, in your panic you are likely to stumble. Even in combat, where fighting is recommended, fighting angrily can undermine your effectiveness. Consequently, we unfortunately teach children that it’s bad to feel anger rather than teach them what to do when angry. This leads people to be strangers to anger, demonizing it in others and mismanaging it when they feel it themselves.

1. Anger tells us when an injustice is being perpetrated. Hollywood knows this, activating our anger in action films by showing us injustices that are eventually resolved in violence. War fury is whipped up with tales and images of injustice. Without anger, social justice would be an entirely academic concern. When something makes you angry, consider whether you ought to do something to restore fairness to the situation.

Because our anger is perverted by childrearing practices that demonize it, and by bullying and other violent rather than noble images of anger, we can’t trust ourselves to equate anger and injustice (just as we cannot perfectly equate fear and danger). If your anger becomes noticeable when you are feeling inadequate, you need to check for the possibility that you are explaining away your inadequacies with anger. “You made me feel bad about myself and that pisses me off” is a far cry from “I won’t sit silently while you oppress me.” If you were yourself bullied or oppressed, your anger might not be a reliable marker of actual injustice. If you were never bullied or oppressed, you might have a hair trigger when it comes to personal injustice and a lack of sensitivity to injustices perpetrated on others.

2. A milder form of anger regulates status in social interactions. Generally speaking, we get angry when our status—our place in a pecking order—is lower than we expect it to be. Anger serves the individual, who is thereby motivated to get his or her share in the natural marketplace. And it serves the group, as it motivates the positional climbing that maintains social order—pecking orders distribute resources with minimal violence, but they are established by fighting (in chickens) and by other forms of dominance (in humans). Yes, it’s true that we wouldn’t need pecking orders or status dynamics if only we could be utterly devoid of aggression, but we are an aggressive species, and anger is often the source of the solution to problems posed by anger.

Anger in social orders works best if the underlying sentiment is that it is better to be strong than weak, better to get the lion’s share than the vulture’s share. Privileges accorded men, adults, and whites, however, have made it not just worse to be less powerful, but humiliating. This leads to machismo, entitlement, and other pathologies that are based on an avoidance of humiliation. If you are satisfied only with coming in first, or ahead of some people because of their race or sex, then your anger about your status is not a good signal for competition. Instead, it’s just a sign that you have unproductive beliefs about competition. I think one of the great boons of my life was playing hardball from age six. We learned how to win; we learned how to lose; and we learned how to fit in on a team when we were the worst (youngest) players on a team, and when we were the best.

3. Anger tells us our personal space is getting violated and motivates us to protect it. If like me you hope the person who sits next to you on an airplane is a woman, you know what I mean. Men, much more than women in my experience, will claim the whole armrest and spread their legs until their knees are under your tray table. I’m not saying that all such men are Hitlers with whom appeasement does not work, because once they have your armrest and your knee space, they are usually satisfied. I’m saying they are dogs who take what they can. You’ve got to bang their knee with yours, and claim half the armrest the first time they give an inch. These are the same men who treat women like sex objects, and women have the same problem on planes that they do on the street, which can be summarized as the way a knee-bang can be interpreted as a kind of sexual victory instead of as a boundary setting. (Instead, women need to video these men and post their behavior on social media with as many identifiers as possible.) Again, if no human had anger, you wouldn’t need yours; but they do and you do.

If you have some condition that makes it hard for you to know your own boundaries, your anger will mislead you. If your boundaries have been routinely violated, you may be so vigilant that you go off half-cocked. If you are spoiled, you may think your personal boundaries extend farther than they do, and again your anger may not be a useful call to arms.

4. Anger tells you that you’re in extinction, that a once reliably reinforced behavior is not garnering success. It should signal you to try something else. Otherwise, you will sit in traffic mindlessly instead of considering alternate routes.

Again, if you act entitled, by dint of machismo, narcissism, or prestige, your anger may be provoked not when you are in extinction (not when reinforcers are no longer contingent on what you are doing), but when reinforcement is merely intermittent or delayed. If you think things should always go smoothly for you, you need to learn a little patience. Otherwise, you can let your anger guide you to try a new approach.

Coda: If you are jumpy or skittish about anger, or if you feel angry about a host of situations that other people take in stride, its utility will be greatly diminished. But if you embrace anger as a natural aspect of the human condition, it can be a reliable guide to useful behavior.

Be sure to read the following responses to this post by our bloggers:

More Posts