The Best Explanation of Anger Ever
What is Anger?
Is Anger Merely a Secondary Emotion?
How Is Anger Different from Other Negative Emotions?
What Is the Difference Between Anger, Hostility and Aggression?
Dr. John Schinnerer
People sometimes feel sorry for me when I tell them I work with angry clients. They picture clients screaming and throwing things at me, attacking me, in my office. Yet, this is (usually) far from the truth. My clients are rarely angry in my office. In my office, my clients wear a mask of rationality and show a calm demeanor as no one wants to admit to having anger which is beyond their control. Interestingly, psychological research has been slow to examine anger.
So what is anger? And how is anger different from other negative emotions, such as guilt and fear? Is anger always a secondary emotion, following closely on the heels of another emotion such as sadness? Let’s take a look and see if we can answer these questions.
Is Anger a Secondary Emotion?
Since 300 B.C., philosophers such as Aristotle and Seneca have argued that anger is a primary source of human misery. This view continued into the early 20th century. One of the founding fathers of psychology, Sigmund Freud, believed anger was a component of mania and mania was fueled by depression. Freud’s belief cast anger into a role as a secondary emotion, an emotion that exists only on the heels of other, more primary emotions. This role was hard to shake. Anger had been typecast. This dated belief is widely accepted today. In fact, a colleague of mine recently parroted it, stating “Anger can only be a secondary emotion” which, oddly enough, made me feel annoyed.
Anger is a Primary Emotion
The limited view of anger as a secondary emotion has severely and negatively impacted our understanding of anger. Every major theory of emotion now views anger as a primary emotion, as one of the six basic universal emotions which is present in every culture on the planet. Anger is the first negative emotion to be displayed by infants and, thus, may be THE primary negative emotion.
Yet, psychological research has focused more on other negative emotions such as sadness (depression) and fear (anxiety). Our knowledge of what anger is and how best to treat it has been limited – perhaps by this century-old belief that anger is secondary. Fortunately, the tide is now beginning to turn and more researchers are looking at anger and the development of effective, evidence-based practices for reducing anger. So let’s turn to some of the major differences between anger and other emotions such as guilt, sadness and fear.
Differences Between Anger and Other Negative Emotions
The majority of negative emotions compel you to avoid or escape those things that caused them.
Fear, for example, activates the flee-or-freeze response. You avoid the aversive stimuli. When you see a snake on a hike, your automatic response is to run away or stay very still (and act like a tall tree!). There is little cognition, or thought, that takes place when you are truly afraid. An automatic behavior script get activated and you run or pretend you are part of the scenery.
Sadness compels you to avoid the outside world. It motivates you to stay close to home to regroup, re-energize after a loss so that you can be taken care of by loved ones an eventually, take on the world again. There is a great deal of thought that takes place with sadness, normally called rumination. Sadness gives you time to reflect on what you could have done, what you would have liked to have said, and how you might act differently in the future.
Guilt has both avoidance and approach built into it. Guilt acts like a boomerang. When you throw a boomerang, it moves away from you (avoidance), and then returns to you (approach). Similarly, when you make a mistake, guilt compels you initially to withdraw from the situation or person. Over time, you reflect on your poor behavior. Eventually, you are moved to go back and make amends. This is the first emotion that has been shown to have both an approach and an avoidance dynamic to it, thereby making a relatively simply picture of emotions much more nuanced and dynamic.
Anger is slightly more complex. Anger compels you to approach that which made you mad. Have you ever experienced a bad break up and angrily Facebook-stalked your ex? Or continued texting and calling your ex even when you know it’s a bad idea? Anger is the only negative emotion which people want to hold onto. Anger is self-reinforcing, like a tiny cartoon devil sitting on your shoulder, distorting your thoughts and perceptions and shifting all blame onto others. Anger seeks only to keep itself alive through hijacking your attention, forcing you to look for things that annoy you, and locking your thoughts onto past hurts. Similar to a painkiller addiction, anger is not easily kicked. Part of the reason for this seems to be revenge and part of it seems to be rumination.
Revenge appears to be self-reinforcing. Overfocusing on getting revenge on someone who has wronged you activates the area of the brain involved in reinforcement creating a feedback loop that can be hard to break. Unfortunately, little empirical research has been done on revenge despite it’s seemingly integral role in anger.
Rumination occurs when your anger forces you to obsessively focus on the cause of your anger, why it happened, what you “should” have done differently, what you would like to do to retaliate, and so on. Rumination has traditionally been associated with depression. And research has shown that the longer you spend ruminating on negative thoughts, the worse you feel. Thus, finding ways to interrupt rumination may be an important part of the solution for anger as well as depression.
What Is Anger? The Challenge to Define Anger
Simply by looking at the attempts to define anger in the scientific literature, one quickly sees just how complicated a topic anger is. In my opinion, the best definition of anger to date comes from Howard Kassinove and Raymond Tafrate (2006).
Anger is a negative, phenomenological feeling state which motivates desires for actions, usually against others, that aim to warn, intimidate, control or attack, or gain retribution. It is associated with cognitive and perpetual distortions and deficiencies such as the following:
Misappraisals about it’s importance (e.g., “This is terrible”)
Misappraisals about the capacity to cope (e.g., “I can’t take this any more”)
Justice-oriented demands (e.g., “He should have known better. Next time he should not lie to her”)
Evaluations of others (e.g., “She should have known better than to steal that money. What an idiot!”)
Dichotomous thinking (e.g., “Either she is with me or she is against me!”)
Overgeneralization (e.g., “He hasn’t responded to my text in an hour. He must not like me anymore.”)
Attributions of blame coupled with beliefs about preventability or intentionality (e.g., “It’s completely his fault. He wanted to hurt me. If he had thought about it before opening his mouth, he never would have said that.”)
Subjective labeling of the feeling (e.g., “I am so pissed off right now.”)
Fantasies of revenge and punishment (e.g., “I’m going to teach him a lesson he’ll never forget. I’ll show him he can’t treat me that way.”)
And, anger may, but not always, include:
Physiological changes (e.g., heart rate increase, blood rushing to fists, furrowed brow, etc.)
Learned patterns of behavior that define how to act when angry (e.g., using a loud voice, slamming doors, pointing fingers, crossing of arms, etc.)
This lays out the beginning of a definition of anger. As you can see, there are layers of cognition, physiology, behavior, and emotion. There are interpersonal and intrapersonal elements. The next part is an attempt to differentiate between anger, hostility and aggression.
Hostility is a set of pessimistic attitudes or beliefs that increases the likelihood of experiencing anger. For example, some of the hostile beliefs clients have shared with me in the past include, “I can’t stand old people” or “All Muslims are terrorists” or “I hate foreigners” or “Everyone is out to get my money” or “I don’t trust anyone over the age of 21.” All of these beliefs increase the likelihood that neutral actions by someone in one of these groups will be misinterpreted as negative, unjust or antagonistic. Such beliefs lead to greater frequencies, durations and intensities of anger.
Aggression has to do with the physical actions coupled with an intent to harm. While giving a child a shot at the doctor’s office may hurt, there is no intent to harm and thus it is not an aggressive act. On the other hand, getting into a fight at the local In-N-Out with a classmate because he told you your girlfriend was cheating on you is aggression. There are two types of aggression – emotional aggression and instrumental aggression.
Emotional aggression is aggression that follows on the heels of anger. You get angry, you attack with the desire to hurt another person (or property).
Instrumental aggression is aggression that occurs without anger. Many years ago, I had a client who was heavy into gang life. He would attack innocent people without anger. The aggression took place due to a desire to prove himself to his fellow gang members. His behavior was then positively reinforced by his “family.” In some environments, such as prison, the belief that those who don’t attack first will be attacked later can fuel instrumental aggression in a pre-emptive effort to remain safe. So anger may be connected to aggression but it does not have to be.
In conclusion, anger is a complex and multifaceted feeling state that involves emotional, cognitive, physiological, behavioral and interpersonal elements. It is an arduous task to define and measure any emotion, let alone one as layered as anger. Yet, we cannot assume any longer that anger is solely a secondary emotion. We cannot assume that depression and anxiety are more deserving of our attention than anger. Despite anger’s prickliness, we must push forward and continue to learn more about it and, most importantly, the best ways to alleviate pathological anger.