Why are we so angry?

Are you angry? Maybe you’ve noticed that more people seem to be angry, intolerant, frustrated, or stressed – on the road, at work, in the supermarket? Angry politicians, angry protesters, angry Facebook feeds? What’s going on?


Let’s start with the first question: are people getting angrier? I’m going to say no, although it might seem that way (see below). That’s because there’s nothing new about anger, it’s one of our primary ‘negative’ emotions (along with fear, anxiety, disgust, and surprise – read here). In fact, anger has been around since long before we became human (if you haven’t already read my early blog “Spanking the Inner Monkey“, have a quick read now) in that it’s moderated by the part of our brain that evolved to keep our furry mammalian ancestors alive (the limbic system). Feeling anger helps activate our ‘fight or flight’ response (usually the ‘fight’ component), and often motivates us to act and, without it, we probably wouldn’t have survived as a species – anger fuels action in the presence of all sorts of challenges: fear, pain, hunger, and fatigue to name a few.

So, as a species, we’ve always been quick to anger and, for a lot of our evolutionary past, it’s probably been quite useful. Of course, when I say ‘useful’, I’m talking about useful for enhancing individual survival to increase the chance of procreating. This is, of course, a very limited definition of useful and, in fact, I’d argue that that sort of useful is distinctly useless for modern humans, but I’ll get to that. And whilst anger can be ‘useful’ for motivating survival behaviour, it also makes it difficult for us to be human. Being angry quite literally reduces our humanity by diverting resources away from higher brain structures that deal with complex attributions, such as empathy and compassion. Quick sidestep: when the limbic system outputs an emotion such as anger or fear, it stimulates sympathetic nervous system activity, resulting in physiological arousal and (once a threshold has been reached) a ‘fight or flight’ response. This response involves rapid physical preparation for fight or flight, including release of adrenaline and cortisol, increased heart rate and respiration, and diversion of blood, oxygen, and energy (blood sugars) from ‘nonesssential’ systems (i.e., gut and higher brain) to those required for fighting or fleeing (e.g., large skeletal muscles). The prefrontal lobes in your cerebral cortex do all of the processing for your ‘you module’ (i.e., your self and personality), as well as housing complex emotions like compassion. This processing takes a lot of resources, which are diverted to other ‘run away’ systems when your limbic system decides that you’re in danger. In other words, when you’re angry or frightened, the parts of your brain that could help you to think your way through the situation are temporarily degraded, making it very hard to think clearly, rationally, or compassionately. Hence the reason angry people do dumb, nasty, or thoughtless things.

So, basically, we’ve been experiencing anger since long before we were human and, as a species, we’re quick to anger, because it used to be a very effective response for helping us to stay alive. Here’s the main problem: our limbic system (the survival part of the brain) evolved in a much simpler world where anger made sense as a reaction. Anger evolved to solve problems for us in a world that required very different reactions to the one we now live. Put another way, the modern world is massively removed from the one our survival systems evolved in, and our reactions (primary emotions including anger and fear) are no longer particularly useful to us, especially because, when activated, they reduce our access to the more recently evolved, higher brain functions that we use to navigate our complex modern existence. And because a survival system has to be jumpy, it makes us quick to experience these emotions, so we’re quick to anger – and always have been. It’s just that anger doesn’t help us survive anymore.

So, in other words, we’re stuck with a system that we can’t avoid, that is twitchy, that responds inappropriately to many situations, and that actually makes it harder for us to function (or even survive). Great…

So if we’ve always had this tendency, why does it seem that there’s more anger in the world with each passing year? First, there’s a cognitive bias that’s probably at play: confirmation bias. Confirmation bias is the tendency to look for information that confirms our preheld beliefs. If we think the world is an angry place, if those we spend our time with also think it, and we’re exposed to expressions of anger on the news and in our Facebook feeds, we’ll start to filter information in a way that makes us notice this sort of information over other types. It’s very hard to get past this bias, even when we’re aware of it, because our brains love taking shortcuts, and this means that we make the world seem angrier by noticing anger and angry behaviour, and by failing to notice other emotions or actions.

But there’s another reason why it might seem that we’re getting angrier. Anger is the primary emotion that is easiest to process, and is often triggered to make it easier for us to deal with other feelings, like fear or sadness. Excuse the redundancy, but fear is frightening, and we really don’t like experiencing it. Likewise, we hate feeling sad, and will usually go to great lengths to avoid it. A lot of the time it’s just simpler to mask fear and sadness behind anger, because we experience anger as both less frightening (it’s certainly frightening to others, but the irony of anger is that it makes us blind to how others perceive our actions, at least while we’re feeling it) and more understandable. We usually justify anger by focusing it on someone or something else, and it’s a lot easier to rationalise an emotion if it’s externally directed. In other words, it’s easier to process our feeling by blaming other people or situations than it is to recognise an internal issue that we can’t do anything about. Anger allows us to feel that we’re in control of a situation (even though that’s usually BS), whereas fear and sadness usually imply a lack of control (which we really don’t like).

Sadly, anger is also often perceived as a more culturally acceptable emotion than fear or sadness (especially for men). It inspires action (despite the fact that action is often harmful or hurtful) rather than inaction, and (at least temporarily) removes rather than increases self-doubt. When we reduce self-doubt we find it easier to justify our behaviour post hoc, and it makes it more likely that others will buy into our rationalisations (we see action as ‘strong’ and inaction as ‘weak’). This means that behaving angrily is often reinforced by a feedback loop of internal and external acceptance.

Here’s the crux. Anger is an easy emotion because we have a lot of neural hardware dedicated to a system that likes to think in black and white (danger versus safety), and that has the ability to shut down the parts of our brains that are capable of rational thought. Because anger’s ‘easy’ it often feels ‘right’ and because we’re incapable of self-analysis, compassion, or empathy when we’re angry, it also often feels ‘righteous’. Worse, anger is easier to process than other primary emotions (see above), so we often use it to mask those feelings and, worst of all, we are often rewarded for behaving angrily (on the mistaken assumption that anger and aggression are a sort of assertion). This is pretty basic stuff – watch a group of primates competing for resources (food, sex, etc.) and there’ll be a lot of expressions of anger – the most aggressive usually gets both the resources and leadership of the group. Watching the modern political process (especially a certain sociopathic US presidential candidate) is a case in point: he, and most of his supporters have confused anger and aggression for assertion and strength.

What can you do with this information? Just because we have a system that likes to jump into action, doesn’t mean that we need to listen to it. Feeling angry is natural limbic system reaction. Acting on that feeling is a choice. Seriously, something as simple as stopping for a minute, taking a breath, and asking yourself if the action you feel like taking is actually what you want, can make a huge difference. Unless you’re a sociopath, there’s a pretty good chance that the things you do when you’re angry are things that you’d never consider when calm. This division makes a pretty good check point: ask yourself “if I wasn’t angry, would I choose to act this way?”.

Oh, and anger and aggression are not and never will be assertion. Anyone acting out of anger, in preference to reasoned, considered, values-based action, is not acting from strength or leadership – they’re acting on instinct, and taking the much easier (and a lot less human) option. I don’t think that deserves any respect – perhaps, with some thought, you’ll agree.

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