The New Way to Reverse Even Your Worst Mood

The latest research suggests how to talk yourself out of becoming so angry.

Posted Sep 29, 2020

Do you find yourself overreacting to little things? Does the slightest deviation from what you want send you into a fit of rage? Does your anger get even worse when someone tells you to take it down a few notches? How can you get your mood to do a U-turn before you reach that point?

A recent study on anger focuses on the well-known personality trait of "authoritarianism." The storied history of this fascinating feature of personality dates back to 1950 with the classic book The Authoritarian Personality (Adorno et al., 1950). A person high in authoritarianism, or as it’s now called, right-wing authoritarianism (RWA), tends to show unquestioning submission to people in power, a desire to punish people who don’t conform to “conventional” values, and an unwavering adherence to a set of narrowly-defined moral and religious norms.

As noted in a new study by Grenoble Alpes University’s Johan Lepage and colleagues (2020), adding the RWA form of authoritarianism to a social dominance orientation (SDO), or a desire to exert power over others, gives you a formula for rage-inspiring levels of prejudice and intolerance of people who you define as unlike you. At the core of RWA, the French authors believe, is a lack of the ability to self-regulate your punitive instincts. It’s at the intersection of RWA and this tendency toward anger that you let your bad moods escalate out of control.

Prior research on authoritarianism, the authors note, shows a general tendency toward stability of this trait across the course of a person’s life. Despite experiences that might lead highly authoritarian people to moderate their attitudes, this prior evidence would suggest that you’ve got no way out of the dilemmas created by your anger when you perceive some sort of violation of your expectations.

However, as Lepage and his co-authors point out, your physiological reactions to provocation might constitute “maladaptive emotional and cognitive and social self-regulation” (p. 2). If that's true, is it possible to stem the tide of your anger by controlling your physiology?

The specific mechanisms in the body leading to the anger component of RWA can be accounted for, according to the French researchers, by what is known as the “polyvagal” and “neurovisceral integration” models. When something prods you to experience anger, according to this view, your cardiac reaction goes into high gear almost before you know it. Cardiac vagal control (CVC) as measured by heart rate variability (HRV) therefore became a key focus of the Lepage et al. study as an indication of the body's reaction to authoritarian-based anger.

Based on the premise that highly authoritarian people overreact to potential threat cues, the Grenoble Alpes research team created an experimental situation that was intended to provoke people's anger without causing any actual harm. A sample of 198 university-affiliated individuals (average age of 20, 80 percent female) entered what they believed would be a set of straightforward experimental tasks. However, they were actually given false feedback about their performance, making the task an anger-inducing “forced failure” paradigm.

In the first task, participants saw a set of faces rapidly presented to them on a computer screen. The researchers asked participants to identify the emotions on those faces. False feedback presented by the experimenters told them they were wrong. Next, participants completed an anagram task with each word puzzle presented for a mere 40 seconds at a time. Eight of the 20 anagram tasks were actually unsolvable. Making things worse, a countdown clock showed participants the seconds ticking by, adding further to their stress. Finally, participants attempted to complete a backward counting task, starting at the number 2,083 and going back by serial 13’s. The experimenter gave them feedback the entire time, adding the pressure by urging participants to “try harder.”

Imagine yourself in these situations. The clock is ticking and you’re being given a task that you want to succeed at, but you can’t. Would you feel your heart rate start to spike the more frustrated you became? In the French study, these physiological changes were tracked using an electrocardiograph to measure HRV. Participants had also completed, prior to the experiment, measures of RWA, SDO, political conservatism, and perceived cultural threat, as well as a measure of perceived stress.

As the authors predicted, individuals high in RWA as well as SDO showed greater physiological reactivity to the failure induction and a lowered ability to recover after the stress ended. Tying these findings into authoritarianism theory, the authors went back to the original conceptualization of the trait as “characterized by insecurity and fearfulness” (p. 12). In other words, being confronted with evidence of their inadequacy, plus being unable to complete the task assigned to them, sent their cardiac reaction into the expected high gear as their perceived stress began to overwhelm them.

Returning to the question of how you can control your own anger in your own life, the first step would seem to be to examine the nature of the perceived threat you’re facing. Is it an experience of failure, leading you to feel even more insecure about your abilities? Is it a challenge to your own somewhat firm beliefs about what’s “right” or who’s “different”?

Because Lepage and his colleagues argue that both biology and the environment contribute to the inability to regulate emotions, you can now see a possible way to engage your own self-regulatory potential. Having decided on what the threat is that’s making you angry, you can now focus on methods to get your heart rate back to normal. A considerable body of research on relaxation shows that it is possible to pay attention to these internal signals and bring them back into line. Taking that all-important second step of listening to your body can help you change what your body is doing.

Finally, think about how closely your own personality traits match those of the highly authoritarian individual. Even though these traits are regarded as stable, there is still wiggle room for changing yourself. Open your mind up to alternative views about the world, both at the large political level and within your own smaller circle of those you interact with on a daily basis. Do you find it hard to accept people you perceive as different? Try to find some common ground by listening to what they have to say. If you tend to watch only one news channel or social media feed, take a peek at one you’ve never followed before. Maybe your hard-edged attitudes can soften just enough to feel less threatened by those you regarded as your polar opposites. You might even find some grounds for commonality.

To sum up, anger is an unpleasant emotion that most people would like to control. Tapping into your personality traits and your own reactions to stress can help you stem the negative emotional tide before it even begins.

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References

Adorno, T.W., Frenkel-Brunswik, E., Levinson, D.J. & Sanford, R.N. (1950). The authoritarian personality. New York: Harper and Row.

Lepage, J., Bègue, L., Zerhouni, O., Dambrun, M., Vezirian, K., Besson, T., Bonneterre, S., & Mermillod, M. (2020). Authoritarian attitudes are associated with higher autonomic reactivity to stress and lower recovery. Emotion.  doi: 10.1037/emo0000775