There have been days lately where it seems we’re all angry – about something.
The drama of politics, the never-ending fallout from COVID-19, we just stepped on a Lego that we told the kids to pick up, we were cut off in traffic, our internet is moving at the speed of a glacier or we just can’t find our flipping car keys.
It’s always something, or so it seems.
But why do we get mad in the first place? What, exactly, is anger? How can we manage it or, better yet, how can we use it to our advantage?
Dr. Ryan Martin, a professor of psychology at the University of Wisconsin-Green Bay, has some answers. He has studied anger from all sides for the past 20 years and has been called upon by the likes of Psychology Today the New York Times and NPR to discuss a subject we all recognize but really don’t fully understand.
He was asked to do a TED talk, which has received over 3 million views since June of 2019, and now has written a book: Why We Get Mad.
Q: So what was the impetus to write your book?
A: I’ve been studying anger for a very long time, more than 20 years, since going to graduate school and actually was interested in it years before that.
I really spent a lot of time thinking about why people get angry, the types of thoughts they have when they are angry, the types of behaviors they engage in when they’re angry, what it does to them physically and so on.
Through that process I think I’ve developed an understanding of how people don’t necessarily have a good sense for what anger is, they don’t necessarily have a good sense how they might be able to manage it in more healthy ways, and so ultimately the reason I wanted to write the book is to dispel a lot of those myths and help people develop a better and healthier understanding of their own anger and the anger of those around them.
Q: So from your viewpoint, what is anger?
A: Anger is an emotion. It’s a feeling state, frankly, not that different from some other feeling states, like sadness, or fear, or guilt, or even happiness, because it’s this emotional experience, and as an emotional experience it includes some behaviors we tend to engage in. So, when we’re angry, we often want to lash out at people, either verbally or physically, but we actually don’t act on that nearly as often as people think. We are angry all the time without actually lashing out. So it’s not totally different from when you’re afraid. There are some things you tend to do, either flee or avoid the things you’re scared of, but not always. You sometimes face that fear in a different way.
Q: It seems people hang on to anger. Is that actually true?
A: I think it does for some people. And, when it does, I would argue that it reflects a problem. It reflects that you haven’t necessarily resolved the issue that’s causing it. So, one of the things I talk about in the book, people have a tendency to ruminate, meaning that they keep thinking about the thing they’re angry about. They get in an argument and they just can’t stop thinking about it and thinking about it. One of the reasons that happens is because you didn’t come to an adequate resolution. You didn’t solve the problem as best you could, and you have some regret about the way you handled it. So, in some way, that rumination is your mind’s way of letting you know, "Hey, this isn’t over for you." And, I think, when people hang on to their anger, it’s because the problem that led to their anger in the first place just hasn’t resolved itself yet, and we have to find a way to deal with it.
Q: How should you deal with that then?
A: This is the thing that’s probably most challenging is that there are some problems we have some control over and some we don’t. And, I think, that when we have control over this, there are ways we can channel our anger. And by that, I mean, part of what happens when we get angry is that we are energized. That’s the fight or flight system kicking in and encourages us to respond. And so we’re energized. And when we can use that energy, or that fuel, to solve those problems - and solving those problems might look like a lot of different ways, depending on the problem I guess.
Sometimes it’s having a difficult problem conversation with someone. Sometimes it’s creating art or writing letters to the editor or protesting, sometimes it is – I talk to a lot of people who say I get frustrated over things not working correctly, by that they mean technical things like their phone or computer – so there are ways you can fix those things and you can use the energy your anger provides to fix the thing that’s broken. Those are a bunch of options that people can engage in.
The problem is knowing and dealing with the anger that we can’t necessarily solve on our own. So, I’m talking to lots of people and I’m someone who is really frustrated right now by the health crisis and feeling really frustrated about people choosing not to social distance or not to wear masks and things like that; that’s a problem I can’t solve on my own. That’s a problem I’m not able to address, so, at some point, we have to do the things we can and be willing to accept the fact that we can’t change everything.
Q: So if you see something that really makes you angry and you can’t do anything about it – like a packed bar during a Packers game with no masking or social distancing – how hard is it to stay relatively calm and say there’s nothing I can do about it?
A: I think there are a lot of people right now, myself included, who are feeling really isolated by that very thing and really helpless by that very issue. And I think that, what I see people doing, in fact, a lot of times, I see them posting on social media as a way of dealing with it and it’s just doing the things they can do. I can try as hard as possible to make my friends make good decisions; I can do that at least. I can’t control the people in the bar, but I can encourage my friends not to do those things.
But I think the concern I have -- for a lot of people -- I think it’s moving from anger into even depression. I just see a lot of people feeling really helpless about this. And there are people in this situation who are like me and relatively safe and so, it’s more just a frustration of how long the pandemic has lasted but there are other people that I know – I have friends that are getting chemo treatment – and it makes going to the doctor so much harder for them because their spouse can’t be with them or whatever – and so that’s where I think there is a lot of despair, a lot of sadness, that’s coming along with this, too, and not just anger.
Q: Is anger more a learned behavior or a genetic quality?
A: It’s going to be a little bit of both. Human beings are born with predispositions to experience particular emotions in particular ways, and so, there are structures inside our brains. One of them of them, for instance, is this little structure called the amygdala -- that’s a little emotional computer deep inside your brain -- if that is, there are people for whom that structure is more active, and when it’s more active, they’re more likely to experience more fear and anger and a host of other emotions. There also are other structures in the brain -- our pre-frontal cortex allows us to control our emotional impulses and for some people it’s less active. I think the challenging part of that is knowing why it’s less active and the degree to which that was something a person was both with versus a person developed that way because of learning. What we do know is that when it comes to learning, human beings do tend to model the emotional expressions of their caregivers. So, if I had a mom or dad that used to yell and scream, chances are I’m going to yell and scream because that’s the thing I saw, what I learned and the communication style I embraced.
Q: What about triggers, and how should you deal with those?
A: This is something I actually spend a lot of time talking about in the book. Where these triggers, or what I sometimes call provocations, where these come from. Because ultimately, when we experience something in the world, we make meaning of it. We decide what it means in the context of our life. Sometimes it might not mean anything. So like I’m driving over to a friend’s house to watch a football game and I got plenty of time so that delay in traffic doesn’t mean very much. I get stopped, or I get slowed down, and I think, ‘Ah, no big deal. I’ll be a couple of minutes late.’
On a day, though, where I’m driving to a job interview I might feel very, very different about that. That same exact thing means something very different in my life. And so, we interpret all of these different triggers as they happen to us, and we decide how big a deal is this, how bad is it, why is it happening and what does it mean in the big picture. When we evaluate those types of triggers as catastrophic or as really, really negative or really unfair, then we’re going to get angrier.
Q: How is anger viewed in men versus women?
A: The findings around gender differences are really interesting. Because the data, more or less, says that women and men become angry at approximately the same rate. That one isn’t necessarily angrier than the other. However, men tend to express their anger outwardly more. So they tend to yell, they tend to scream, and hit.
And women are more likely to suppress. They’re more likely to hold their anger in. But what we see, to get to your point, is we see very different evaluations or judgements made about men versus women when it comes to anger. Men who express their anger outwardly are more likely to be perceived as sort of strong, and even smart. Women who express their anger outwardly, they often times lose credibility. So the research says they have their opinion essentially devalued when they tend to express their anger outwardly.
Q: What about anger on social media, where it seems people think they have a license to unload on other people?
A: There are a couple of different ways where social media plays a role here, one of which is it provides us with, I think, more opportunities to feel anger. So as we scroll through our Facebook feed or Twitter feed we’re coming across more content, more stuff to respond to, more of those potential triggers. So that’s one way social media plays a role.
The other is it provides us another venue to express our anger. So we have the opportunity to communicate things in a way we didn’t before. Even, and this is not new to social media, even e-mail or texting allowed for that. It’s a different process, a different experience to call someone on the phone and have a tough conversation on the phone than it is to send them an e-mail or send them a text. And the more we sort of – let me use a different definition of social distancing – the more we are socially distant from the person we are communicating with the more likely we are to say things that we might not say to them in person. And the evidence regarding anonymity, or even perceived anonymity -- the idea that I’m not that close to this person, they probably don’t know who I am, that anonymity really encourages people to do or say things they otherwise wouldn’t do or say.
Q: So if people are on social media and they continue to read angry posts, on topics that may also feed their beliefs, can it grown into something like we saw at the (U.S.) Capitol?
A: This is a thing that we should all be very frightened of. When I talk about the lenses through which we see the world, that lens isn’t just an emotional lens, it’s also the information we have that drives that lens. If I believe all sorts of things that aren’t necessarily true, or that there’s no evidence for, and those things have been fed to me by my social media feed, then I interpret these other things that happen through that lens.
And so, if I were someone who believed that elections were fraudulent and I’ve been listening to the president say that and I’ve been listening to so many of my social media friends say that, well then you start to interpret the other information you have through that lens. And you essentially become triggered or provoked by things you otherwise wouldn’t be triggered or provoked by. And I do think that lens, that perspective, is very much informed by our social media feed. Not just who we’re friends with but the algorithms that also feed us the information it knows we want. So I think that’s a really dangerous side of this.
Q: If social media helps feed your anger, I imagine it makes it more difficult to put it down then?
A: I’ve seen plenty of examples of journalists interviewing people at some of these rallies and really providing them with evidence that their belief is inaccurate and they’re just not able to come out from behind it. I think the more sort of baked into your mindset this perspective is the harder it is to take in new information that violates that. That’s been a finding that psychologists have been aware of for decades and decades, but I don’t think we’ve ever seen anything quite like this because social media is so new and it’s really informing that in a different way.
Q: Anger is not looked upon as a clinical issue. Are you surprised at all by that?
A: I am interested in the fact that people don’t tend to think of it as any kind of clinical diagnosis. And there’s good reason that they don’t. It’s not currently listed in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders as its own disorder. It exists in the document but not in the same way depression or anxiety do. Which, I think, there are tons of reasons why that is.
But, I think, the really interesting question is, why do we think about this emotion so differently from those other ones? And, I think, some of it has to do with the perception of choice. I think some people think of anger as being sort more choice-driven than some of those other feeling states, and someone with an anger problem is that they're just sort of a jerk. Whereas someone with depression, or somebody with anxiety is really suffering in a different way. I think some of that probably has to do with how angry people make us feel. And so, when we know an angry person in our life, they usually make us feel bad. They scare us, or they say mean things. That doesn’t necessarily happen in the same way with anxious or depressed people. So, I think, we end up having a little more empathy for people who have anxiety problems, or depression than we do with people who are angry.