Most of us know situations in which someone became angry and it made the situation worse. For example, consider the following Luann comic.
Although expressing our anger can often make certain situations worse, we continue to get angry. How come?
ANGER AS A RAPID, LIFE-SAVING RESPONSE TO THREATS
Over time, people who didn’t find ways to respond very fast to threats would end up getting killed. At times, this meant that if they saw a vicious animal rushing at them, the best thing they could do is to very quickly fight back either to scare off the attacker who would end up running away or to kill the attacker.
If people would have killed every time they felt a threat to one of their desires, they would end up killing the vast majority of the members in their group. Because larger groups can defend themselves against attacks better than very small groups, perhaps communities that learned to cooperate provided the best opportunity for its members to survive.
According to this theory, when perceiving a threat people learned to warn others in their community by showing signs of anger. Their anger became an indication that they were getting increasingly ready to attack and those in their community, when warned of this, attempted to find ways to reduce the threat without the requirement that someone had to be killed.
Anger can Function to Encourage Help
Many years ago I did a research project when I was a university student. After I collected the data, I had to enter it into a computer.
Up to this point in my psychology research experience, the first step to enter my data was to punch IBM computer cards. But the supervisor of the computer room informed me that there had been some recent advances in computer technology and IBM cards were no longer used. He told me what to do, and I diligently followed his instructions.
After typing at the computer for three hours, I felt a static electricity shock and the video screen with my three hours of data input went blank. My heart started beating hard. I tapped the screen and wiggled the keyboard. Nothing!
“What is going on here?!” I shouted in anger.
The guy sitting at the next computer immediately stopped what he was doing and called over the supervisor to help me. “What’s the matter?” he asked.
After explaining to him that all of the data that I entered had disappeared, he asked if I had been pressing the SAVE button every few minutes to guard against data loss.
“You never told me anything about pressing SAVE when you gave me directions!” I angrily hollered.
“I’m sorry,” he replied. “I really should have.”
Notice that when I started to get angry, I very quickly got someone to start helping me to figure out what was wrong. I probably would have gotten the same help if I asked for assistance without shouting, but because angry responses do lead so often to people cooperating when someone does become angry, it encourages us to keep on getting angry.
Although I was angry, I was able to control myself enough and realized that it was not in my interest to either kill or physically harm the supervisor. Getting arrested would have only wasted more time. I also realized that I made mistakes from time to time. Just like I wouldn’t want to be slugged every time I made a mistake, it didn’t seem right to slug this guy for making a mistake.
Of course, there may very well be times when we become angry that our heightened preparedness to engage in fighting can serve a life-saving function. This was probably more likely to be the case in ancient tribal communities.
OTHER BENEFITS OF ANGER
So far, we discussed three benefits of anger. 1. to respond fast enough with fighting during times when that may be potentially lifesaving, 2. to scare away an attacker, and 3. to give off signals in the community that encourage others to help solve a conflict before any negative consequences from a fight occur.
In our culture there are other factors leading us to think that anger is highly effective for achieving our desires.
In this Wizard of Id comic, Bung presents the theory that by making ourselves angry we can increase our strength. Obviously, just the increase of strength without the skill to use it wisely can lead to some unexpected whacks.
Some coaches believe that by working up anger in the hearts of their players, the players will perform physically better even if the goal is not to kill or physically injure others.
Even on tasks that don’t require mighty physical strength to succeed, many people have come to believe working up anger will challenge a person to work harder.
ARE THE BENEFITS OF ANGER EXAGGERATED
Although anger can be more effective than some other poorly thought out strategies, often people are led to think it is more effective than it really is. This is because the negative effects of anger may be hidden.
In the above comic, Lt. Fuzz expresses anger at Sarge because he is being noisy. As a result, Sarge secretly becomes angry and desires to annoy Lt. Fuzz. But Lt. Fuzz only sees Sarge replying to his anger by saying, “Yes Sir.” And so, Lt. Fuzz comes away thinking Sarge has responded with respect. He doesn’t see that Sarge actually covertly disrespects him and does things that make Lt. Fuzz’s life miserable. Here we see a fine illustration of how easily we can be misled into thinking our angry responses work better than they actually do.
MOVING FROM ANGER TO CHALLENGE
Anger can be effective at times. And often you may find yourself very tempted to let your anger go on an all out attack. Nevertheless, you would be wise to pause and remind yourself that oftentimes such attacks lead to obvious and hidden problems.
In brief, challenge has us:
- Working up a heightened sense of determination to achieve our desire
- Meanwhile, we consider the twin beliefs that the stress we have been experiencing is normal and fulfillment is not found in easy comfort, security, and routine, but rather in the continual growth in wisdom through what is learned from negative and positive experiences of an active, changing life
- Then, we take a deep breath and resolve to get down to the task at hand—carrying out a two-step process.
Step 1. Consider if the most obvious resolution is sufficient.
In such cases in which you become convinced that the resolution that you came up with poses no serious risks, it makes sense to you, and you feel comfortable with it, the only job you have left is to carry out your plan with charm, courage, and determination. However, if the most obvious solution does pose a serious risk, or you just don’t feel comfortable with it for any reason, it’s time to go to Step 2.
Step 2. Carrying out a more complete decision process.
There are numerous benefits that occur when we learn how to transform anger into challenge. Now I understand perfectly well that for most of us this is far easier said than done. It is for this reason that in future posts I will be explaining more about what challenge is, discussing many of its benefits and how we can all learn, in a fun way, how to use challenge even in the most difficult of circumstances.
 The value of this attitude is discussed in: S. R. Maddi, D. M. Khoshaba, R. H. Harvey, M Fazel, & N Resurreccion, 2011, “The Personality Construct of Hardiness, V: Relationships with the Construction of Existential Meaning in Life,” Journal of Humanistic Psychology, 51(3), 369-388.
Some people will enjoy reading this blog by beginning with the first post and then moving forward to the next more recent one; then to the next one; and so on. This permits readers to catch up on some ideas that were presented earlier and to move through all of the ideas in a systematic fashion to develop their emotional intelligence. To begin at the very first post you can click HERE.