The Nuance

Inside Your Brain’s Complicated Relationship With Anger

Anger does not look, act, or feel like other negative emotions. Therein lies its power.

Illustration by Kieran Blakey for Elemental

Writing nearly 2,000 years ago, the Roman philosopher Seneca described anger as “fundamentally wicked” and fit only for suppression. The doctrinal texts of Christianity, Judaism, and Islam tend to take a similarly dim view of anger, which they often list among man’s principal shortcomings.

“Traditionally, anger has been looked at as negative,” says Philip Gable, PhD, an associate professor of psychological and brain sciences at the University of Delaware.

Gable has studied the way anger influences the brain and behavior. He says that, by and large, people report that the experience of being angry is unpleasant — at least in retrospect. Of course, anger is also an emotion that fuels aggression, rage, violence, and hate. For all these reasons, most psychologists today categorize anger as a negative emotion.

That may be selling anger short. “It can certainly get us into trouble, but anger also plays a functional role for us,” Gable says. Anger can pump up positive feelings such as confidence, pride, and determination. “It can also motivate us to engage in constructive behaviors, and it can focus our attention on a problem,” he says. It’s not an exaggeration to say that anger supports some of humankind’s noblest and most altruistic tendencies — including our willingness to fight against injustice.

But anger is a tough animal to keep in its cage. Unbridled, it may have more power to promote self-deception, conflict, and destruction than any other human emotion.

“Anger can be an incredibly constructive emotion. Most types of protest, such as the civil rights movement, reflect the motivating value of anger toward injustice.”

What makes anger special

Unlike other emotions that people see in a negative light (feelings such as fear and sadness), anger activates processes in the brain that are normally associated with positive mental states.

“Anger is the only negative emotion that is part of the brain’s approach system, which means it motivates us to engage in goal-oriented activities,” says Alan Lambert, PhD, an associate professor of psychological and brain sciences at Washington University in St. Louis. Put another way, all other negative emotions push us away from something that we regard as unpleasant or threatening. Anger often does just the opposite; it acts as an encouragement, rather than as a deterrent.

And what encourages anger? “Its most reliable trigger is the perception of injustice, either to others or to oneself,” Lambert says. “We tend to feel angry when someone’s rights are violated, or they’re mistreated, or something happened to them that we think shouldn’t have.”

A lot of animals act aggressively when their own well-being or the well-being of their kin is threatened, and a few even get pissed off on behalf of non-kin group members. But humans are outliers in their willingness to fight or even to die for total strangers. While this trait is unusual, evolutionary scientists have theorized our tendency to band together and to fight for moral justice has contributed inestimably to the success of our species, and to its ability to form vast, complex, cooperative societies.

“Anger can be an incredibly constructive emotion,” Lambert says. “Most types of protest, such as the civil rights movement, reflect the motivating value of anger toward injustice.”

But just as anger can promote selflessness and cooperation, it can also align people and their energies behind causes that are abominable. Injustice, he adds, is often in the eye of the beholder. And once anger bursts to life, it can be both haphazard in its choice of targets and also difficult to rein in as circumstances evolve. “Anger is notoriously hard to inhibit,” he says. “It can gather momentum and snowball.”

Some experts have gone so far as to propose that elements of anger may be addictive. The scientist David Brin, PhD, has written about addiction-like qualities of self-righteous indignation and its ties to pleasure-inducing neurochemicals. “Sanctimony, or a sense of righteous outrage, can feel so intense and delicious that many people actively seek to return to it, again and again,” he wrote in the 2011 book Pathological Altruism.

Anger’s strange appeal may lead some to over-rely on it. “Some people, especially men, tend to gravitate towards anger and use it to deal with their problems,” Gable says. “It’s like anger is a hammer, and every problem is a nail.” Defaulting to anger doesn’t necessarily backfire. “Again, it can be very motivating, and it can keep you focused in on a goal,” he says.

Work from the Harvard psychologist Jennifer Lerner, PhD, has found that anger can help people make quick, confident decisions, which in some cases are preferable to more ponderous, time-consuming styles of deliberation. “But anger can obscure the bigger picture, potentially limiting one’s ability to develop creative or nuanced solutions,” Gable adds.

“Anger is notoriously hard to inhibit. It can gather momentum and snowball.”

Harnessing the good, letting go of the bad

Everyone gets angry. And in some cases, that anger is appropriate. “Anger is healthy and normal, and it can be helpful when it motivates us to do something constructive,” Gable says.

On the other hand, anger can be unruly and uncompromising. It can make us say and do things we regret — often immediately, but sometimes only much later when we have a broader, more contextualized view of a situation.

Unfortunately, there are no hard-and-fast rules — no simple litmus test — that people can rely on to determine when their anger is properly aimed and calibrated. “It’s really difficult to determine when the consequences of an emotion are good or bad,” Gable says. That said, taking greater care to monitor your own anger — to notice when it arises and what you do with it, and to be honest with yourself about its consequences — can be instructive.

Unlike Seneca, who described anger as nothing but trouble, the Greek philosopher Aristotle understood that anger — if judiciously deployed — has some utility.

“Anybody can become angry — that is easy,” he wrote. “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.”

I write about health and science. I live in Detroit with my wife and kids. I’m trying to learn German, but my progress so far is nicht gut.

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