Why we get angry at the wrong things…

There seems to be a lot of angry people out there. On the roads, on the airwaves, on social media – everyone is pissed off at the world around them. Everybody wants things to go their way – and rants and rails at the injustice when they don’t. We all want ponies and Oompaloompas right now.


If you can understand where anger comes from, it’s also quite understandable why we’re so angry. Anger is the output of a system error (read here) – we model the world around us, and expect it to conform to a predictable pattern. When that model fails, we experience a mismatch between what we expect and what is, and this error triggers a limbic response (read here) that often feels overwhelming. The consequent increase in sympathetic nervous system arousal triggers a physiological reaction: our blood pressure increases, our heart rate elevates, our levels of adrenaline and cortisol rise – we enter the “fight” mode of our “fight or flight” response – and we want to thump someone, or shout at them, or punch a wall, or just quietly seethe.

Two things are worth noting here. First, in the modern world, there are a lot of potential triggers for anger (or at the very least frustration) – which means that we all spend quite a lot of time being angry or frustrated. Second, this state is not very good for us. Physically, ongoing anger and frustration results in cardiovascular damage and immune suppression. Psychologically, being angry limits our ability to experience satisfaction and wipes out our capability to be compassionate. And objectively, acting on our anger can be downright harmful; it limits our ability to function and to form relationships, and might actually result in us seriously hurting others.

So we’ve got a big mismatch. We live in a world that constantly triggers anger and, at the same time, that anger is really bad for us.

Today, I’d like to address two important points about anger. The first is a little easier: learning to experience anger but not get screwed over by it. The second is harder: learning to be angry about the right things, and to use this anger effectively. Let’s start with the first.

The main problem with anger is not actually anger. It’s holding onto and acting on our anger. Physiologically and psychologically, anger isn’t particularly harmful in small, spiked doses (unless we do something really stupid). It is a problem, however, when we pay a lot of attention to it. Like all other primary emotions, anger itself is a normal reaction, the result of indelible systems. In other words, you can’t really stop yourself from being angry – as we’ve seen, it occurs because of a mismatch between your limited ability to model the world, and the real thing. Because our modelling ability is poor, we’ll get it wrong a lot, and this will trigger anger or frustration. Left to its own devices, anger usually spikes briefly and then diminishes. No harm done. The problem for most of us though, is that we pay a lot of attention to it when it happens. We assume that it must be there for a good reason (after all, we’re feeling it so we must be justified, right?), so we attend to it, rationalise it, build it up, and then often act on it. Attending to anger triggers a spike in sympathetic nervous activity, a “fight or flight” response, and the temporary loss of higher brain functions – meaning a temporary inability to make effective, rational decisions, and a much higher likelihood that we’ll do or say something regrettable.

Functioning alongside anger requires a pause between your feelings and your actions. Rather than just automatically going with what feels right – stop for a minute, take a breath, notice what’s going on, accept that you’re pissed off, and then see if you can make a different choice. Do you really want to shout at your partner, tell your boss to shove it, or tailgate the car that cut you off?

But that’s not what I really wanted to talk about today. Because anger can be really useful because it tells us that something is wrong – it’s just that we’re nearly always wrong about what’s wrong – and our anger is seriously misplaced. We get angry at the wrong things. And I’m not just talking about the small things like traffic, and late trains, and annoying co-workers; we get angry at the things that we believe are harmful to us or those we love. We get angry at things that we don’t understand or that frighten us. And we fail to get angry at the things we don’t directly relate to.

Remember that anger is an atavistic, primary emotion. It’s origins are protohuman, and it’s pretty basic. This means that we get angry about things that we perceive are directly harmful to ourselves or our close tribe. Because we have limited processing capacity, we have an upper threshold on the number of humans we can form relationships with: about 150 (this upper limit is known as Dunbar’s number). As a result, our ability to feel anger is limited to those things that affect us and a maximum of 150 people with whom we share a connection. Outside of this ‘tribe’, our ability to relate reduces rapidly – we just aren’t ‘wired’ to care.

Because of our connection to our ‘tribe’, we also take their opinions and beliefs a lot more seriously than those we don’t know. So even though we might not have a first-hand experience of something, we’re much more likely to believe it if we hear it from people we trust. This is why Facebook crap spreads so quickly – if someone we know and trust believes it, and we don’t have enough information to disagree, we’re more likely not only to agree, but also to internalise the belief. This is how anger spreads – and because social media connects tribes (the people I know know people whom I don’t, who know other people, etc.), belief systems and the anger associated with them can also spread very quickly.

What we’re really talking about here is our tendency for cognitive efficiency. It takes a lot of effort to really understand something – it’s a lot easier (more cognitively efficient) to simply assimilate a belief from someone we trust, and to post-hoc rationalise this assimilation as rational thought. So we believe our inherited anger is righteous and well thought out when, in fact, it’s laziness.

Which brings me to the things we waste so much energy getting angry about. Not just the daily frustrations, but the fads du jour that are based on nothing real, but spread virally because we place our  trust in the person who transmitted the information. The crap that gets ranted about on social media: anti-vaccination, big pharma, wheat, paleo, etc. We don’t understand these stances, but we get angry about them because we feel that someone we know has been affected by them – and because we’re too lazy to think it through, or incapable of understanding what’s really going on, or content with a narrow, simple, one-sided ‘argument’, we accept the anger as our own, and then transmit it further down the line. Worse, we use this anger to motivate us to take the wrong action. We deliberately seek out information that confirms this new stance and continues to fuel the anger. Over time, we build this to the point where we refuse to take a balanced view, leading to even greater efforts to transmit the anger virus to others.

And this is the really sad part – we get angry about the easy stuff, the stuff we can relate to, that feels justified and right because it (might have) affected someone in our tribe. And we fail to get angry about what really matters: climate change, global surveillance, incompetent leaders, political oppression. And with this failure to care comes a lack of motivation to take action when it matters. We spend so much time being angry at the stuff that doesn’t matter that we have nothing left for the stuff that really counts. Apathy through anger overload is a horrible thought – but one that is increasingly the norm.

Without getting too ranty, I suppose I’m asking you to recognise that it’s really easy to get hoodwinked when it comes to anger. There’s a lot in this world to get angry about and that needs to be acted on, as well as a lot that makes us angry that we really shouldn’t be attending too. I’m still not very good at this, but I’m trying to learn the difference: daily frustrations are inevitable, but don’t need my attention – the big stuff, the stuff that requires effortful thought, the stuff that doesn’t necessarily affect my tribe directly – this needs my focus, my attention, and my action. I’ll keep trying to get this right, maybe you can too.

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