Anger is created from perceiving minor injustice. It’s motivation to stop unjust things from happening to one’s self or others. Anger is an under-appreciated moral emotion.1 This under-appreciation of anger is partially attributed to people’s fear of rage which is similar to anger but uncontrollable. Psychologists have documented that perception of deliberate and malicious injustice results in anger and aggression towards the offender.2
The initial instinctual reactions usually take milliseconds to appear and often go unnoticed. How long they stay, and to what degree the expressions are exhibited, is a reliable way to gauge how angry a person is truly feeling.
Inner eyebrows tighten inwards and down. The forehead follows the eyebrows, being stretched down and inwards, wrinkling towards the centre. Eyebrows contort, often rising on the edges with increasing escalation. Heart rate increases to a fast and steady pace. Breathing is heavy to oxygenate the bloodstream and muscles. The mouth is closed as the jaw muscles tense, and the nostrils flare to improve airflow to and from the lungs. The mind focuses with the eyes onto the object of anger.3
Blood flow to the hands and face is increased, often turning them red, while the nervous system releases endogenous analgesia – natural painkillers.4 As a supplementary consideration, this may be the reason people immediately become angry when accidently hurting themselves – such as stubbing a toe or hitting a hand with a hammer. Nevertheless, the main evolutionary reason for anger’s physical adaptations is to prepare the body for defence. It enables people to fight an aggressor or rescue a child from a dangerous situation.
The shoulder, chest, spine, and hip muscles all contract in varying degrees, lifting the torso, to create a firm posture from which to strike or evade a blow.5 Hormones and neurotransmitters are released to prepare people for intense physical action. This influx of nerve stimulation and twitching muscle fibres often makes the hands shake. An aspect of this priming process shuts down access to unnecessary intellectual networks to increase reaction times by decluttering thought processes and relying more on instinct.6 Cognitive abilities will be more inclined to focus on the silhouetted body language of offending persons – the physical parameters of a situation – to make continuous risk assessments that will aid overcoming an immediate threat, rather than focusing on the details of clothing or the time of day. A less intense version of weapon focus assumes control of thought processes (see Terror). Eye-tracking will follow the assessment of threats according to their perceived intensity – gesticulation of the arms, the movement and positioning of bodies et cetera.
Anger triggers the fight element in a fight-or-flight scenario. It biasses decision making towards taking risks, and this mentality will affect all decisions that are processed whilst angry. These reactions, that vary from mild to extreme depending on the intensity of the emotion, characterise the subconscious, neuro-biologically processed, expressions that people are so often unaware.
These hypertensive (showing elevated blood pressure) biological reactions prepare people to tackle abusive behaviour. The closing of outer capillaries is proper when people face malicious actions as they’re primed to stop and deal with physical danger. Be that as it may, these reactions are set into motion by perception alone. If people believe a misperception, they will become angry inappropriately and experience the same biological responses.
Anger is an appropriate adaptation for offences that are happening or are ongoing. It relates to the present. If anger is felt for a past offence, maybe the transgression is being thought about in the present tense. The biological responses of anger function to tackle offences in the here and now. To become very angry about a past event is maladaptive because it creates unnecessary neuro-biological load. Historical events cannot be stopped.
Inappropriate angry reactions can happen because of learnt, habitual ways of responding to others’ behaviour. If the biological turning on and shutting off of defensive dispositions happens continuously, it will have adverse effects on health. Accumulation of such inappropriate defensive stresses over decades significantly contributes to serious health complications, including primary hypertension, cardiovascular disease, decline in physical functioning, and even memory loss (see Stress).
Nonetheless, good health is not maintained by suppressing anger. Studies show that people who repress their emotions are at a higher risk of developing cancer and having it progress more rapidly. Also, breast cancer patients who express their negative emotions, especially anger, are shown to live longer.7
There are psychological consequences that stem from not expressing anger directly. If anger is not expressed, people develop passive-aggressive behaviours that will be detrimental to others around them.8 Passive-aggressive behaviours are always created from a fear of expressing anger directly. For example, people may be angry with their boss but be afraid of the boss’s possible disadvantageous reaction to receiving a direct expression of anger. Maybe, people have been taught that anger is a foolish emotion, which only irrational people use when frustrated by a problem. Perhaps people have been told that anger is inherently bad and used by immoral bullies. The simple thought that emotions are inferior to reason or that anger is a prehistoric expression, although riddled with philosophical holes, is an idea that stops people expressing their anger directly.
The continual challenge of anger is to strike the balance of assertive self-expression from accurate perceptions. There is no one size fits all. It is important that expression of anger is appropriate to the situation that created it as then people stop malicious behaviour while keeping themselves from being abusive. At the same time, it prevents people from developing passive-aggressive behaviours that are so destructive to relationships in the long run, and it averts repression that causes metabolic imbalance (see Stress) and acting-out behaviour. Hence, appropriate expression of anger stops problems building up externally and internally.
How wrong an observed behaviour is perceived to be is directly proportionate to the degree of anger felt. Anger can be used to understand, implicitly, how unjust an action is believed to be. People can reliably use their feelings, which stem from conscious and unconscious sources, to gauge how angry they truly are. This may sound an obvious statement, but it is possible to ignore or suppress emotions. When people cognitively-avoid their anger, they are disconnected from how angry they truly are, and they only have generic thoughts of how angry they “should be”, in such a situation, to guide their judgements. Generic judgements can be used to recognise over- or under-reactions of anger, but purely intellectual decisions are a massively inadequate substitute for the natural process of anger. Understanding different levels of personal anger provides a graph that can be mapped in real-time to the expressions of others. This gives more accurate perceptions to one’s own anger, but also other people’s.
Anger is not a lesser or bad emotion. It can be used abusively, but it’s not abusive. A hammer can be used abusively, but it’s not abusive. Anger is used to stop many abusive things from happening in the world, yet many people fear it. Even if their fears are unfounded, people will do or say irrational things to stop people doing the things they fear. Fear is a far more unreasonable emotion than anger. This is frustrating as the angry person may be seen as a bully rather than a person who is trying to stop something wrong. The point is missed. The behaviour that made the person angry is overlooked. Offence and a grudge may be taken. A maladjusted fearful reaction is played out.
The fact that abusive people use inappropriate expressions of anger to make others conform to their plans makes the situation all the more complex. Abusive personalities may project false feelings of injustice onto others they want to control. The aim is to create insecure feelings in people. If people think they’ve done wrong, they instinctively reflect, feel guilt, and fear punishment. They may even backtrack and try to appease the person taking advantage of them. Anger can be used to elicit guilt as part of a guilt-trip. Such abusive use of anger could be delivered in a direct expression or in a more passive-aggressive form – “God will be angry with you!” Insecure people are easier to dominate. Abusiveness creates and preys on insecurities. No rubber stamp of approval is given to such behaviour by anger, but anger can be used to abuse in such a way.
Clarifying where anger comes from is beneficial. What people do with their anger will depend on how reasonable they can be within their context. Having an angry expression without meaning can cause more trouble in the long run because people might misconstrue that it’s an abusive attempt to control the situation. Also, it could be misunderstood as a selfish uncontrolled emotional response – mistaken for rage.
Anger motivates people to stop something from happening. It is like an alarm bell, saying, “This is a code red situation.” Anger is an emotion that says “STOP” or “DO NOT DO THAT” and it does not usually say “please?” In its varying forms it’s a powerful emotion that is capable of motivating a person in extreme situations (through fury and ferocity) to serious courses of action regarding life and death. This is a reason people are so afraid of anger, but it’s also why it’s necessary for defence against abuse. Anger will rise to the challenge of any perceived abuse, and it will stay for as long as the perception remains.
The main problem and the defining point is that perceptions are not always correct. People can be too angry or not angry enough. Accurate perception is important. If people are too angry, owing to an inaccurate perception, then they will become mentally, verbally or physically abusive or heavy handed to some degree. This is where people use unnecessary force to prevent something from happening, yet, on the other hand, if people are not sufficiently motivated by anger, because of an inaccurate perception, then they’ll be too passive and allow potentially abusive things to happen. The experience of anger is far from simple. Anger is a complex issue. How it’s expressed is critical to its effectiveness in stopping an action – without a backlash due to over- or under-reaction.
Interventions, which aim to calm angry people, attempt to get them to reappraise the situation and show any misinterpretations of malicious intent. This is true for abusers who want to pacify their victims and avoid punishment, and it’s true for carers who want to calm the hypertensive. The interventions try to change the angry person’s view of the world by reducing any perception of ill-intent, so the anger subsides.
If people reflect on their behaviour and find it based on misled thoughts, are they willing to update their perceptions? When people decide they shouldn’t be so angry, they may have to experience an awkward situation, admit they were wrong, and perhaps apologise for their excesses. On the other hand, when people decide they should have been angrier, they might have to experience guilt over not having acted sooner, admit they were wrong, and maybe apologise for their passiveness. Are people willing to do this? A balanced view leads to a balanced emotional response, but the cost might be an apology and feeling momentarily awkward through a mixture of embarrassment and guilt. Is it worth it?
Continually ignoring this process will lead people to neglect relevant information and so keep an unreasonable view of the behaviour in question. This ignorance (or cognitive-avoidance) will maintain inaccurate perceptions that create unbalanced emotions, which fuel reactions around the behaviour in question. This is what ultimately leads to abusive and selfish behaviour, not the anger itself.
People are not always right. Their perceptions are often inaccurate to some degree. The fact that people mentally evolve from generation to generation – the micro of the macro – means it’s proper to update convictions and opinions about behaviours and situations experienced in life.
To get angry and stop a person who is being abusive is not wrong. To get angry and use necessary or reasonable force to stop someone using excessive force is not abusive. This is the very definition of justice. Anger and justice are bound together. It is a fundamental right that is written in law for all people in the West. Anger funding reasonable force is a good cause. People should not shy away from acting or speaking in such a way because someone thinks that anger is a bad thing. Do people let someone get away with abuse because another is unsettled by their anger?
There are many people who misunderstand anger. Some think it’s a tool for abuse. Others look down their noses, with contempt and disgust, viewing it as an expression that only emotionally illiterate people use. These are understandable thoughts considering that people who were roughly treated with anger are bound to associate the emotion with unreasonable brutes. If they become parents, they are likely to pass on their fears to their children.
Also, many memes that were passed into Western culture, thousands of years ago, were negative and naive towards anger. Eminent philosophers (such as Zeno Stoic) of ancient times worked from a basis that emotions were inferior to reason, that consequences in life were accepted as fate and that getting angry only made things worse. Such memes were influenced by religious thinking and then in turn influenced religious thinking. It’s understandable how thinkers in ancient times began intellectual enquiries with such misconceptions. Throughout civilised history people have tried to make the things they fear taboo. They did not know that emotions were the motivations behind all their lofty enquiries.9
Such demolition of emotion was an aim of people in early civilisation. The over-intellectualised revival of memes to purge humanity of emotions by some thinkers in the age of enlightenment can be thought of as a misguided recurrence of a half thought through theory. Nevertheless, the most important of philosophers have never been persuaded. Darwin has probably given the most comprehensive description of emotions to date. A hundred years before Zeno Stoic was on his holier than thou mission to rid the world of emotions like anger (without realising the irony of his moral superiority), the first scientist and most accomplished philosopher, Aristotle, had said:
For in everything it’s no easy task to find the middle…anyone can get angry – that is easy – or give or spend money, but to do this to the right person, to the right extent, at the right time, with the right motive and in the right way, that is not for everyone, nor is it easy.
Aristotle concerned himself with establishing methods of using logic. He developed logical thought processes that became the foundation of scientific enquiries. It was impossible for him to understand the evolutionary processes involved in producing the best neurotransmitters to cause nerves to become appropriately affected, or how hormone cocktails infuse bloodstreams. There was no biology to explain the inextricably woven reactions to perception.
Humans look through a cleaner, sharper lens today. Imagine a man who accidently had part of his brain removed (due to a high-velocity shard of metal in a workplace accident) and it was found he had lost his ability to experience complex emotions. No guilt, no worries, no admiration, no joy, no sadness, no despair, no anger, yet his intellectual capacity – Intelligence Quotient or IQ – remained within the top three percent of the American population even after extensive tests. To some, not having to experience complex emotions might even sound desirous. Unfortunately for the man, who incurred the loss of a substantial part of his secondary emotional processing unit, he found that he could not make a decision and was permanently distracted by facts.
He would stand in a shopping mall for hours in front of an item he knew he needed, but he was unable to choose between the brands on offer. He would compare every minute detail of the products. Their size, fat content, sugars, colour of the packets they were in, their location within the isle, what shop sold them, the sell by dates, the use by dates, what pockets they would most comfortably fit in for transportation, how each would sit in the cupboard at home and so on. It could be said that he was too diligent in his decision making, but that would hide the truth. It was due to a lack of prompts from his right prefrontal lobe that was partly removed in the accident. He had no emotional cues from his higher-brain prompting him to choose one brand over another.
Results from such examples – the above is an amalgamation of two such cases – have taught humanity that emotions play an intricate role in motivation and the cognitive experience of decision making.10 To separate emotions from cognition is not a desirable experience. It is a tragic loss of part of a system that has taken millions of years to co-evolve subsystems. The brain is so complex it leaves people dumbfounded, with conscious intellectual stupidity, when it’s severed from emotion. A conscious mind is like a toddler looking in a mirror for the first time whilst the unconscious parent looks on encouragingly with amusement. Little do toddlers consciously understand how much they need parental guidance.
It is illogical to consider removing emotions. Illogical because it’s impossible to do such a thing without rendering people senseless and indecisive due to lacking motivation. Reasoning is intimately bound with the emotions that are its motivations. Zeus did not gift humans intellect. It did not suddenly appear out of nowhere. It developed owing to perceptions that held such activities to be of paramount importance; perceptions of need give rise to anger if someone would maliciously ruin the possibility of attaining or sustaining what’s important. Humans could not attain exquisite thoughts without the motivations for them. Given accumulating knowledge, it’s increasingly foolish to consider anger as an inferior emotion. All emotions have a place in the evolutionary progress of dealing with reality, and anger has a central role in the homeostatic balance of a just society.
Yet there’s an important point to remember. If people believe a perception, then they feel the associated emotion whether the perception is true or not. Belief in accurate perceptions is the key to appropriate and just responses. This is no bid to promote rage in society or an excuse to get lost in an impassioned moment of power. Anger is a motivation to stop something wrong from happening. If people believe they have been cheated, they naturally feel angry, but are their perceptions an accurate account of reality? What are they trying to stop? How are they trying to stop it? Is it reasonable?
Old Norse. Angr = trouble, affliction.
1. That which pains or afflicts, or the passive feeling which it produced; troubled, affliction, vexation, sorrow.
2. The active feeling provoked against the agent; passion, rage; wrath, ire, hot displeasure.