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Differentiating Anger from Aggression

It is the aggression, not the anger, that is normally the problem.

This post is in response to
10 Tips for Reducing Anger

Is anger always a problem? A recent popular blog argued this point. Steve Laurent claimed anger was a problem "because it is an ineffective way of operating in the (social) world, can occasionally backfire, and ultimately ruins relationships." Although I agree with the author that anger can be a problem and I think he offers some helpful advice, I think he is missing some important nuances that results in him oversimplifying the issues, which in turn creates problems in the message. My position is that many of us can in fact live with less anger than we do and that this would largely be a good thing (this is where I agree with him), but it also is the case that the basic emotion of anger is an important part of our human socio-emotional repertoire that can serve us in important ways (this is where I disagree with him).

To see where the argument in his blog goes astray from my perspective, let’s start with a simple but useful way to divide the major domains of human psychology: 1) overt actions; 2) feelings (in this case both sensory perceptions and emotions); and 3) self-conscious, language-based thoughts.

The core of anger is in the feeling category. That is, the essence of anger is an experienced perceptual-response set that is activated when an individual perceives his or her interests being violated or disrespected by another. In humans, angry feelings activate self-conscious thoughts about injustice and how people should be and they orient and prepare an individual toward actions to right the felt wrongs. These thoughts and actions can then feedback on and fuel angry feelings. However, as virtually every adult knows, it is often the case that we feel angry, but do nothing. This is important to keep in mind because it highlights that feelings of anger are separable from the domain of overt actions.

My perspective is that the “problem” normally is found in the aggressive actions that stem from our angry thoughts and feelings, as opposed to being with the angry feelings per se. This point about the importance of differentiating anger from aggression was driven home to me by my colleague, Dr. Elena Savina, a psychologist from Russia. After we attended a presentation on anger management, she turned to me and said, in our usual playful banter, “You Americans are obsessed with managing your anger. I don’t get it. Aggression is what needs to be managed, not feelings of anger.” Indeed. And a re-reading of Laurent’s blog supports this point. Most of what he is concerned with are aggressive displays and acting out, rather than feelings of anger per se.

Laurent argues that, "at its core, [anger] is an evolved intimidation strategy." I disagree and think he is conflating agression with anger. Anger, according to the unified approach, is a basic emotion that is fundamentally about orienting an individual toward their protecting their interests against undesired intrusions and restrictions and unfair exchanges. The perceptual trigger for angry feelings is that one’s rights and interests were violated, which in turn activates a desire to restore equilibrium, either by asserting one’s position or extracting a cost on another by inflicting some form of punishment (for some additional thoughts on the evolved function of human anger, see here). In this regard, anger is the emotional opposite of guilt, which is activated when an individual perceives themselves as hurting an important other, which in turn leads to feelings of culpability and self-sacrifice (for more on the anger-guilt relation, see here).

Like all emotions, anger can be either adaptive or maladaptive.* Some common examples of maladaptive anger include when anger is activated by the slightest trigger, when it is chronically accessible, when it is used to intimidate and dominate, when it is confused with and used to defend against feelings of hurt, or when people are so self-absorbed they only see their own interests and are angry about being the victim when in fact they are blind to their privilege and how they are the victimizers.

Despite the fact that anger can be a problem, I don’t think it is wise for mental health professionals to be making claims that anger is always a problem. Indeed, as a clinician it is not uncommon for me to focus someone on "getting in touch" with their angry feelings. Why would we sometimes need to embrace our feelings of anger? Because sometimes it is very appropriate to focus on your own interests. If your spouse cheats on you, if your boss blatantly disrespects you, if your friend steals your wallet and so forth it would be problematic NOT to be angry. This is an important point to make because many people are afraid of their anger, they repress it and, as a consequence, they are walked on and taken advantage of. In short, it is often the case that we need to attend to injustices—and anger can be an important emotional resource in that regard. It is worth noting that there is research that points to anger having adaptive value in navigating the social environment.

Consider, for example, that I am halfway through the wonderful novel, The Help, a story that chronicles the lives of Black maids in Mississippi before the Civil Rights Era. I feel anger rise up in me as I hear the story. Why? Because I internalize the feelings of the Black characters and over and over again the White characters belittle their dignity and damage their well-being. I become angry for the simple reason I affiliate with the characters in my imagination and I want to protect them from the injustices they experienced.

This highlights that anger is crucial because it orients us to injustice. It certainly can become a problem for a host of reasons. But the primary way it becomes a problem is when it leads to aggression. A mature psychology, like a mature adult, is one can differentiate feeling angry from aggressive acting out. As such, rather than offering a condemnation of a basic emotional experience that often guides us in our interpersonal relations, I believe mental health professionals should focus on helping people to differentiate adaptive from maladaptive forms of anger, and should focus on ways to manage and reduce the real problem, which is destructive aggression.


*In contrast to adaptive or maladaptive in an evolutionary sense, maladaptive in this context means that it will have consequences contrary to one's valued goal states.