How Fear Leads to Anger

Emotions cause other emotions, as when people’s fears cause them to be angry.

Posted Nov 09, 2018

Politicians such as Donald Trump use emotional manipulations to increase the breadth and intensity of their support. One common technique is to stoke fear of groups such as immigrants and ethnic minorities. Such fears make people angry at the members of these groups, and also at political parties that seem to support them. Anger then leads to actions such as voting and funding.

The observation that fear causes anger raises neglected issues about emotions. How common is it for emotions to cause other emotions? What are the mental mechanisms by which one emotion can lead to another?

Martha Nussbaum's fascinating 2018 book, The Monarchy of Fear, proposes that the fundamental political emotion is fear, which contributes to other emotions such as anger, disgust, and envy. Emotions are causally interconnected, with one emotion tending to lead to another. If you fear someone, you may become angry that they have made you fearful. 

Here are some more examples, starting with negative emotions. If you feel confused, you may feel anxious that you don't know what to do. If you find something or someone disgusting, you may feel contempt for that person. And being with someone you envy may make you feel angry that they have advantages. Feeling guilty that you've done something wrong may make you feel anxious about being detected. Being disappointed about not accomplishing some major goal can make you feel sad. Feeling disgusted about something you’ve done can make you feel ashamed, and shame can provoke embarrassment, which can then lead to anxiety. Feeling regret about something you’ve done may make you feel guilty about it. 

More positively, feeling proud about an accomplishment can help you to feel self-confident. A humorous interaction (the emotion of mirth) can help to generate emotions such as relief, happiness, and security. Falling in love can make you feel secure, but can also provoke anxiety about the solidity of a relationship. The emotions that contribute to falling in love can range from admiration to lust. Adoring a person may increase your romantic interest, and sexual desire may intensify into craving. If you get relief from a stressful situation, that will enable you to feel calm. Appreciating somebody else's pain empathically may lead you to feel sympathy toward them. Triumphing over adversity can make you feel pride at what you've accomplished, and also joy about your accomplishment. When you are surprised by something, you will find it interesting.

The challenging theoretical question is: How can there be such causal relations among emotions? Answering this question requires a theory of the mechanisms underlying emotions. Fortunately, a plausible theory exists: the semantic pointer theory of emotions. In this theory, emotions are patterns of neural firing called semantic pointers that bind together multiple representations that are also patterns of neural firing (Thagard, 2019). These patterns include representations of the situation, appraisals of the goal-relevance of the situation, physiological responses to the situation, and the self who is having the emotion. For one emotion to cause another, there has to be some way for one pattern of neural firing to affect another pattern of neural firing. We can see how this works by breaking down the semantic pointers into the neural patterns that get bound into them. 

Appraisals can easily be part of this causal process. If you realize that someone has made you afraid of them and therefore is responsible for your negative feelings, then you can feel anger at them for thwarting your personal goal of wanting to feel good about your life. In this case, one appraisal flows naturally into another.  Political manipulations are similarly based on appraisals when people get angry at groups that cause them fear. 

Language can also contribute toward causal interactions of emotions. Part of the appraisal process in humans is using language to characterize situations, and the language that is appropriate for the situation may overlap between emotions. For example, some of the negative words such as “illegal” used to describe immigrants in ways that make people afraid of them may also serve to prompt people to be angry that the immigrants have come to their country.

Emotions are not just cognitive judgments, because physiology can also have causal impacts. Fear and anger physiologically are very similar, with virtually the same effects on the autonomic nervous system with respect to cardiovascular, respiratory, and electrodermal measures (Kreibig, 2010). Similar physiology that is part of the development of one emotion can lead naturally to another emotion when accompanied by the appropriate appraisal.

In sum, the widespread causal relations among emotions such as fear and anger are the result of neural interactions based on appraisals, language, and physiology.  

References

Kreibig, S. D. (2010). Autonomic nervous system activity in emotion: A review. Biological Psychology, 84, 394-421.

Nussbaum, M. C. (2018). The monarchy of fear: A philosopher looks at our political crisis. New York: Simon & Schuster.

Thagard, P. (2019, February). Brain-mind: From neurons to consciousness and creativity. New York: Oxford University Press.