Escape From Anger
What good is anger and how can we respond?
Posted Jan 01, 2020
He who is slow to anger is better than the mighty, And he who rules his spirit, than he who captures a city. – Proverbs 16:32
Anybody can become angry —that is easy, but to be angry with the right person and to the right degree and at the right time and for the right purpose, and in the right way—that is not within everybody's power and is not easy. – Aristotle
It is possible to imagine a world with less anger, but it is impossible to imagine a world without anger. The human capacity to experience, express, and use anger has evolved along with other affective-behavioral systems (Blair, 2012), and so a categorical condemnation or pathologization of anger is neither productive nor realistic.
A simple ethical ideal is to be slow to anger and quick to reconcile. Well-calibrated anger is a response to a provocation that challenges a person’s physical, psychological, or social well-being. When the right conditions are met, anger and its attendant aggressive behavior should be quick and decisive, allowing a speedy return to the affective baseline. A chronic state of seething anger or frequent fits of choleric rage are obviously bad for the person and those exposed to him or her. Anger is a powerful weapon, and it should be used sparingly.
Humans continually face the challenges of modulating their emotional responses (Tice & Baumeister, 1993). We can no longer assume that the experience and expression of anger are well-honed. Anger may well up, and we do not know what to do with it or how to respond to others who are in the grips of this emotion. The social-emotional life of humans lacks the comparative simplicity other mammalian species enjoy.
Consider a stylized example of suppressed anger. Anton and Brutus are close friends. They have a long shared history, and their social and emotional lives are interdependent. Now Anton feels disrespected by Brutus, or he finds that Brutus does not do what he wants him to do, and he gets angry. What to do? A lot is at stake.
The rational ideal is for Anton to explain to Brutus why he feels disrespected and to invite Brutus to consider making amends. The two would talk it out calmly, arrive at a shared perception of the incident, take corrective action, and move on. Alas, this rational and ethical ideal is only that, an ideal.
Suppose Anton is not certain that his anger is legitimate. He may try to suppress its expression and hold off on aggressive behavior. Moreover, the felt anger may interfere with Anton’s ability to take the calm, rational route. Indeed, anger is biologically designed to shortcut rational analysis (Sell, Tooby, & Cosmides, 2009). Attempts at suppressing strong emotions are rarely completely successful. Again, emotions are designed to resist such attempts (Averill, 1993). That is their point.
Being a human animal, Anton finds himself seething, and his seething is evident to Brutus, who is now wondering what in the world is going on. Let’s also assume that Brutus is unaware of having offended Anton. He sees the response but knows not the stimulus.
Anton is now in a mixed emotional state. As he is trying to suppress his anger, we may assume that he also feels fear (Daneesh, 1977). Anton is afraid of expressing his anger and of the possible consequences of that expression. Why else would he try to suppress his anger?
Brutus, for his part, faces a highly ambiguous signal. Pure expressed anger is not ambiguous. The receiver is invited to fight, appease, or flee. But what does Anton’s seething tell Brutus to do? Not knowing what set Anton off, Brutus might deploy his perspective-taking skill and try to figure it out. This will be futile if—as we are assuming—Anton does not speak and there are no obvious clues.
Brutus is now in the Kafkaesque situation of trying to figure out what he did wrong, if anything. If Anton is a trickster; this might be exactly what he wants, but this is an outside possibility if we assume that Anton is truly angered and fearful at the same time.
Brutus must now ask himself whether he wants to open a dialogue and ask Anton what is bothering him. In theory, he can appeal to the rational ideal. However, this seems like a mere theoretical option because if Anton could talk, he already would have. Brutus, therefore, has reason to worry that if he invited dialogue, he would only release Anton’s pent-up anger.
Brutus can now frame the game and consider his strategic options. The first option is to go on the attack. The justification of this option is that Anton’s display of seething anger is offensive itself. Brutus can take his chances with the "how-dare-you" approach.
Choosing to fight, Brutus must weigh the odds that he can win and ask whether "winning" is a desirable outcome for the long-term prospects of his relationship with Anton. He might also lose, in which case he needs to agree with Anton’s claims, when they come, and submit to his demands.
The second option is to try to appease Anton before knowing what the charges are. This route seems rather surreal. Who would want to say, “I am sorry for whatever I did. Now tell me what it was."
The third option is to leave the field, as the old Lewinian phrase goes. Disengage and walk away. But this is difficult too under the assumption that Anton and Brutus have a long-standing and interdependent relationship. Will disengaging and leaving enrage Anton further? What else might be lost in relationship value?
I have described the problem of suppressed anger in an abstract and stylized form. Readers might imagine concrete episodes that they have experienced in the roles of Anton or Brutus. What have they learned?
There are, luckily, useful training programs to cultivate the skills of assertiveness (Bower & Bower, 2004). Assertiveness begins with the recognition of one’s own feelings and the ability and willingness to name them. In our example, Anton’s attempt to suppress his anger could have been avoided if he named and owned his anger even if at the time he didn’t fully understand its sources.
It is amazing how hard this can be. In our culture, some people believe that an emotion that is not fully understood is not legitimate. Anton’s worry about how Brutus might react to a direct expression of anger (even its mere naming) is not entirely irrational. Brutus, in turn, might assertively state that he is troubled by Anton’s signal of suppressed anger. He can say that he is experiencing confusion, annoyance, and perhaps fear. Assertiveness training will provide the skills to do this.
But this training—received by Brutus—does not guarantee that Anton’s floodgates of rage will not open. In other words, in an ideal world, both Anton and Brutus have mastered the art of assertiveness, thus keeping the evolved forces of rage, submission, and flight at bay. But these are powerful forces; they can be unleashed in the blink of an eye. And thinking, as Daniel Kahneman says, is slow.
The sage of Carnuntum. There is a remedy for Brutus, which I have not considered, perhaps because it is, like the ideal of rationality, difficult to execute.
Marcus Aurelius, who was no stranger to armed conflict, had no use for interpersonal anger. "An angry countenance is much against nature," he wrote in section XVIII of the Seventh Book of his Meditations. "All anger and passion is against reason." He continues in section XIX that "Whenever any man doth trespass against other, [...] pity him, thou wilt have no occasion either to wonder, or to be angry [...] so thou art bound to pardon him if he have done that which thou in the like case wouldst have done thyself." This is Stoic wisdom, as beautiful in its humble humanity as it is difficult to live in practice.
One folk psychological interpretation of the Stoic remedy is that Brutus cheerfully ignore Anton's display of anger. Brutus could go about his day and address Anton pleasantly when there is an occasion to do that and otherwise act as if nothing had happened.
Again, one might need a Stoic's training and resolve to pull this off. Our biology has designed anger displays to provoke a reaction of either counter-aggression, appeasement, or flight. Stoic serenity is not an option in the biological toolbox. Indeed, it is quite possible that Anton gets even more outraged when finding that his anger is being ignored.
A note on the photo: Anger is designed to scare, intimidate, and subject others. As long as there is anger, the human experience will have its share of scare. Many rituals incorporate scare tactics and some involve anger. The photo shows a mask of a winter demon (the dreaded Buttnmandl) on display at a museum in the Bavarian Alps.
Averill, J. R. (1993). Illusions of anger. In R. B. Felson & J. T. Tedeschi (Eds.), Aggression and violence: Social interactionist perspectives (pp. 171–192). American Psychological Association.
Blair R. J. R. (2012). Considering anger from a cognitiveneuroscience perspective. Wiley Interdisciplinary Reviews of Cognitive Science, 3, 65–74.
Bower, S. A., & Bower, G. H. (2004). Asserting yourself: A practical guide for positive change. Cambridge, MA: Da Capo Press.
Danesh, H. B. (1977). Anger and fear. The American Journal of Psychiatry, 134(, 1109–1112.
Tice, D. M., & Baumeister, R. F. (1993). Controlling anger: Self-induced emotion change. In D. M. Wegner & J. W. Pennebaker (Eds.), Century psychology series. Handbook of mental control (pp. 393–409). Prentice-Hall.
Sell, A., Tooby, J., & Cosmides, L. (2009). Formidability and the logic of human anger. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, 106, 15073–15078.