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Four Reasons Why We Get Angry


Explanations > Emotions > Four Reasons Why We Get Angry

Aggressive | Defensive | Outraged | Frustrated | So what


Anger is a dangerous emotion, both for others and possibly for ourselves, yet it is very common and very human. Here are four types of anger that appear in four different situations.

Aggressive Anger

Anger is the emotion of fighting and when a person is angered they will naturally seek to attack others. When we are angry, we care less about other people and will more readily hurt them. In fact when we are angry, our values change, going from 'be nice' to 'inflict harm'.

Many animals prefer aggressive posturing to fighting as even a cut can turn septic and be fatal. People, too, often express anger first as a threat, using both attacking words and aggressive body language. In this way, anger is a common persuasive method that threatens harm if the other person does not concede.

When a person wants to attack another, for whatever reason, they may deliberately get themselves angry, for example by thinking of how poorly the world has treated them or how the other person deserves punishment. Fighters do this when they stereotype and depersonalize the enemy as they work themselves up into a berserker rage.

There is a danger in being too angry in a fight. The angry attacker is seldom subtle and often depends on invoking fear that triggers submission or error. A skilled opponent may use this, perhaps even provoking anger and then coolly predicting moves in order to slip around the obvious frontal attack.

Defensive Anger

When a person is suddenly attacked, then the primitive fight-or-flight reaction is triggered., for which a boost of adrenaline gives power to muscles. To fight, you need to be quick and hit hard. To run away, speed and agility are also of the essence.

An initial emotional response to threat is fear, which gives motivation to run away. If the person is cornered or flight seems unwise (such as where reputation matters), then fighting may seem a better option. While fear can lead to the courage of desperation, it is not the best emotion for fighting. This is a reason why fear often turns to anger and the defensive person may appear as an aggressor.

When one person uses aggressive anger as a persuasive tool and the other turns to defensive anger then a loud argument may ensue. If the person defending turns to individual attack as a distraction or as retribution, then a pattern of alternating attack and defense may appear. In this way the original subject of discussion may get lost as the fight becomes personal.

Outraged Anger

In order to live together in society we follow both formal and informal rules, including social norms and values. Typical rules include being fair as well as not harming others and supporting vulnerable other people.

Where there is a problem with people not conforming to informal norms then formal laws may be introduced, for example about stealing. A formal system of enforcement needs police and judges. Infringements of informal rules are dealt with by individuals and social groups, where punishments include criticism and exclusion. Those attacked with moral outrage and righteous indignation often have to make amends in some way to be accepted back into society, for example by apologizing or recanting.

When a person breaks these rules we may well feel an angry sense of betrayal and moral outrage, seeing the person as being bad and deserving of harsh punishment. Even single transgressions may receive severe treatment when the crime is considered to be particularly selfish or uncaring.

Moral outrage is a common tool of newspapers and other media who amplify transgressions with emotive language to trigger widespread anger at target people. Outrage is also a tool of power in politics, religion and elsewhere in life, where individuals effectively say 'If you are not also angry then you are a bad person.' This is a 'with us or against us' false dilemma technique, intended to force others into agreement.

Frustrated Anger

As a part of survival and meaning-making we create personal goals, things we then seek to achieve. These range from short-term desires, such as getting to work, to longer-term objectives, such as getting promoted.

When we achieve out goals, as well as the material benefits we gain a sense of satisfaction or delight as our need for a sense of control is satisfied. When things do not go to plan then we quickly become frustrated and angry. This is why traffic jams, for example, are so annoying. When things happen over which we have no control and which stop us achieving our intent then we tend to vent our anger verbally and on those around us, for example in bad driving and 'road rage'.

Deliberately frustrating others is an act of control that demonstrates power and seeks status. When others block our actions, refuse permission or withdraw resources, we feel angry but may not be able to show it as to do so might attract further unkindness.

Frustration is a key source of stress and yet we still let it happen, as to take less stressful action is to admit a loss of control. We may direct anger inward, criticizing ourselves for lack of planning or preparation. We may also project our anger onto others, even those who are clearly innocent yet just happen to be nearby.

So what?

Understand anger and do not let it control you. Use it wisely and carefully, and when you are angry be careful about of the harm you may do.

When others are angry, they can be provoked into things they would not normally do or say, but beware of their irrationality. If you want to have a reasoned argument, wait for them to calm down.

See also

Anger, Stress, Disgust


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