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The Psychology and Philosophy of Anger

And how to control your anger.

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Anger is a common and potentially destructive emotion that turns many a human life into a living hell. It's hard to imagine a truly wise person like the Dalai Lama ever losing his temper. By a careful meditation, we can learn to control our anger and maybe even banish it entirely from our lives.

Anger is perhaps best defined or understood negatively, by comparing and contrasting it with overlapping emotions such as resentment, contempt, irritability, hatred, and loathing.

Resentment, or bitterness, is an unpleasant emotion, often involving anger, arising from a real or perceived injustice. If it involves someone close or trusted, it is typically complicated and intensified by a feeling of betrayal. People are said to express anger but to harbour resentment. Anger is an acute response to a concrete or symbolic threat, and aims to avert or defuse that threat. In contrast, resentment is more chronic or long-term and largely internalized. Even so, resentment can give rise to retaliatory action, sometimes violent but often of a subtler nature than that born of anger.

Contempt is often described as a combination of anger and disgust, and can be either hot or cold. The cardinal feature of contempt is the denial or rejection of a particular claim to respect or standing on the grounds that it is unjustified, often because the person making the claim has violated some norm or expectation and thereby compromised him- or her-self. Thus understood, contempt is an attempt at invalidating the claims of its object, and, in so doing, reinforcing those of its subject. Philosopher Robert C. Solomon has argued that contempt is directed at those of a lower status, resentment at those of a higher status, and anger at those of a similar status. If this is correct, the flattening of social structures should lead to a rise in anger and a corresponding fall in contempt and resentment.

Irritability is simply a propensity to anger or annoyance. Hatred is an intense or passionate dislike often arising from anger or fear. Loathing is similar to hatred, but with an emphasis on disgust or intolerance. In Instinct and their Vicissitudes, Freud contends that hatred seeks the destruction of its object. But let's move on...

The philosopher Aristotle discusses anger at great length. In the Nicomachean Ethics, he says that a good-tempered person can sometimes get angry, but only as he ought to. Such a person, he continues, might get angry too soon or not enough, yet still be praised for being good-tempered. It is only if he deviates more markedly from the mean with respect to anger that he becomes blameworthy, either ‘irascible’ at one extreme or ‘lacking in spirit’ at the other.

For in everything it is no easy task to find the middle … anyone can get angry—that is easy—or give or spend money; but to do this to the right person, to the right extent, at the right time, with the right motive, and in the right way, that is not for everyone, nor is it easy; wherefore goodness is both rare and laudable and noble.

In the Rhetoric, Aristotle defines anger as an impulse, accompanied by pain, to a conspicuous revenge for a conspicuous slight that has been directed either at the person himself or at his friends. He adds that the pain of anger can be accompanied by pleasure arising from the expectation of revenge. I’m not so sure. Even if anger does contain a part of pleasure, this a very thin kind of pleasure, akin to whatever ‘pleasure’ I might derive from saying “if you ruin my day, I’ll ruin yours” or “look how big I think I am”.

A person, says Aristotle, can be slighted out of one of three things: contempt, spite, and insolence. In either case, the slight betrays the offender’s feelings that the slighted person is obviously of no importance. The slighted person may or may not get angry but is more likely to do so if he is in distress—for example, in poverty or in love—or if he feels insecure about the subject of the slight or about himself in general.

On the other hand, he is less likely to get angry if the slight is involuntary, unintentional, or itself provoked by anger, or if the offender apologises or humbles himself before him and behaves like his inferior. Even dogs, says Aristotle, do not bite sitting people. The slighted person is also less likely to get angry if the offender has done him more kindnesses than he has returned, or obviously respects him, or is feared or admired by him.

Once provoked, anger can be quelled by the feeling that the slight is deserved, by the passage of time, by the exaction of revenge, by the suffering of the offender, or by being redirected onto a third person. Thus, although angrier at Ergophilius than Callisthenes, the people acquitted Ergophilius because they had already condemned Callisthenes to death. Writing two thousand years before the birth of psychoanalysis, Aristotle seems to have put his finger on the ego defense of displacement, with the people’s anger for Ergophilius 'displaced' onto Callisthenes.

There is a clear sense in which Aristotle is correct in speaking of such a thing as right or proper anger. Anger can serve a number of useful, even vital, functions. It can put an end to a bodily, emotional, or social threat, or, failing that, it can mobilize mental and physical resources for defensive or restitutive action. If judiciously exercised, it can enable a person to signal high social status, compete for rank and position, ensure that contracts and promises are fulfilled, and even inspire positive feelings such as respect and sympathy. A person who is able to exercise anger judiciously is likely to feel better about himself, more in control, more optimistic, and more prone to the sort of risk-taking that promotes successful outcomes.

On the other hand, anger, and especially unconstrained anger, can lead to poor perspective and judgment, impulsive and destructive behavior, and loss of standing and goodwill. In the words of Horace, Ira furor brevis est: animum rege, qui, nisi paret, imperat—'Anger is a brief madness: control your mind, for, unless it obeys, it commands.' So, it appears that the sort of anger that is justified, strategic, and adaptive ought to be distinguished from a second type of anger (let us call it ‘rage’) that is uncalled for, unprocessed, irrational, indiscriminate, and uncontrolled. The function of rage is simply to protect a threatened ego, replacing or masking one kind of pain with another.

But even right or proportionate anger is unhelpful in so far as it is anger, which is both painful and harmful, and harmful because it involves a loss of perspective and judgment. Here’s an example. Anger, and especially rage, strengthens correspondence bias, that is, the tendency to attribute observed behaviors to dispositional (or personality-related) factors rather than situational factors. For instance, if I forget to do the dishes, I am under the impression that this is because I have been busy and suddenly felt very tired (situational factors); but if Emma forgets to do the dishes, I am under the impression that this is because she is lazy or irresponsible or maybe even vindictive (dispositional factors).

More fundamentally, anger reinforces the illusion that people exercise a high degree of free will, whereas in actual fact most of a person’s actions and the brain activity that they correspond to are determined by past events and the cumulative effects of those past events on that person’s patterns of thinking and behaving. Emma is Emma because she is Emma, and, at least in the short-term, there is precious little that she can do about that. It follows that the only person who can truly deserve our anger is the one who acted freely, that is, the one who spited us freely and therefore probably rightly! As I argue in my new book, Heaven and Hell: The Psychology of the Emotions, anger is a vicious circle: it arises from poor perspective and makes it poorer still.

This does not mean that anger is never justified, as a display of anger—even if undeserved—can still serve a benevolent strategic purpose, as when we pretend to get angry at a child for the benefit of shaping his or her character. But if all that is ever required is a calculated display of anger, then true anger that involves real pain is entirely superfluous, its presence serving merely to betray… a certain lack of understanding.

The world is as it is and always has been: raging against it is hardly going to make things any better. And it is by truly and permanently understanding this that we can banish real, painful, and destructive anger from our lives. But this, of course, assumes that we are able to accept the world for what it is.

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