Misplaced Anger: Why You Have It, What to Do About It
The phenomenon of ‘displaced aggression’ helps explain why your accumulated anger during the pandemic can spill out into real-world interactions
Anger is an animal without a cage. Once provoked, it can lash out at anyone within reach of its claws. This was true before Covid-19. The man pissed about his job picks a fight with his spouse, or the woman annoyed by a friend loses her temper with her kids.
But if science had an instrument capable of measuring anger, the pandemic and its many challenges would be pushing its needle into the red. All this accumulated rage is certainly spilling out into real-world interactions. The evidence for this is all over the news. Outlets across the country have reported cases of “retail rage” during which store employees who try to enforce rules regarding masks or social distancing have been spit on or otherwise assaulted.
And it’s a certainty that the current moment’s frustrations are causing a surge in angry exchanges among friends, couples, and families.
This roaming, unfocused aspect of anger is sometimes referred to as “displaced aggression,” which psychologists define as “retaliatory aggression that is misdirected from an initial source of provocation and turned instead upon an innocent other.” At a moment when tempers are running hot, it’s helpful to recognize the threat of displaced aggression — in society, and in ourselves.
“There are basically two reasons why people displace aggression onto others,” says Brad Bushman, PhD, a professor of communication at Ohio State University who studies anger and aggression. “One is that the target of their anger is not available — like if a person is pissed off at a politician.” There’s no way to calculate just how many spousal spats or unfortunate parent-child interactions today’s politics have caused, but the number is surely staggering. “The other reason,” he says, “is that the target is available, but the angry person fears reprisal or retaliation.” For example, yelling at a boss is likely to have negative professional repercussions. Yelling at a partner is safer.