Can anger be a force for good?

Emma Young digests the research.

At times, it feels that the world is awash with anger. From the streets of Taliban-controlled Afghanistan to any form of social media you’d care to mention, anger and outrage are seemingly everywhere. New research helps to reveal why this is. It also reveals anger to be itself a Jekyll and Hyde emotion – if we can rid ourselves of the dark, destructive side, what is left can act as a force for good. 

Anger sells
Why is anger everywhere? One reason is that it ‘sells’. There’s plenty of evidence that if you want to go viral online, lacing a social media post with negative emotions – like anger – is the way to go. Social media posts that stir anger against political opponents get more views, and fake news that triggers anger or anxiety is more likely to be spread than real news. In fact, according to the China-based authors of that fake news research (which is available as a preprint): ‘The easier contagion of fake news online can be causally explained by the greater anger it carries’.

People are tired
Poor sleep is common – about a quarter of British adults report suffering from insomnia – and this makes us angrier. As anger can itself worsen sleep, whether sleep disruption also hiked anger was unclear until recently. In 2018, though, Zlatan Krisan and Garrett Hisler reported the results of a US study exploring the potential impact of a 2-4 hours per night reduction in a person’s normal sleep time over two nights. The team brought this group plus another group of people who had followed their regular sleep routine (averaging about seven hours a night) into the lab. They were subjected to various irritations, like the harsh ‘white noise’ sound of static. As a group, the sleep-restricted individuals became ‘substantially’ angrier.

There’s evidence of dangers for younger people, too. An Australian study of healthy teenagers found that when their night-time sleep was restricted to five hours a night for five nights, this increased anger, confusion and symptoms of depression, and sapped their energy. Even more surprising, perhaps, was that two 10-hour ‘recovery nights’ were not enough to reverse these negative changes. ‘Given the prevalence of insufficient sleep and the rising incidence of mood disorders and dysregulation in adolescents, our findings highlight the importance of sufficient sleep to mitigate these risks,’ commented researcher Michelle Short.

Triggered
Other everyday experiences hike anger. ‘Hanger’ – a term that combines ‘hunger’ and ‘anger’ – is a well-documented phenomenon. Exactly what accounts for it has been less clear, however. In fact, it doesn’t seem to be triggered by a simple drop in blood sugar levels, according to a 2019 study in Emotion. Jennifer MacCormack at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill and colleagues found that hunger was indeed linked to more negative emotions, including anger, which caused some participants to judge another person more harshly. However, their analysis suggested that this only happens when a person fails to realise that hunger is making them feel bad, and instead mistakenly puts the blame for those negative feelings on something else – like another person’s behaviour. This could make them lash out, instead of fixing the problem by finding something to eat. The team advises paying attention to signals from your body, and, if you’re feeling irritated, mentally checking whether this might be down to hunger. This, they argue, could help with everything from day-to-day social situations to long term mental health.

Some people have more unlikely anger triggers, however. For some, the sound of chewing, slurping, nail clipping or breathing can be enough to send them into an explosive rage. These people suffer from ‘misophonia’, and in 2021 a study in the Journal of Neuroscience (reported by us) provided a fascinating explanation: misophonia isn’t caused by hearing a specific ‘trigger sound’ so much as an ‘over-mirroring’ of the other person’s physical actions. As this over-mirroring is an unpleasant experience, it causes the anger. This insight opens up important potential routes to treatment. Given that misophonia can destroy relationships and even lead to suicide, these are badly needed.

Harmful for health
Too much anger is bad for you, as well as others. Strokes and heart attacks have both been linked to anger outbursts occurring during the preceding few hours. But in raising body-wide inflammation, regular feelings of anger may also hike the risk of chronic diseases, including heart disease, arthritis and cancer, according to research published in Psychology and Aging in 2019. In fact, anger could be more harmful to older people’s physical health than sadness, according to the team, led by Meaghan A. Barlow at Concordia University, US. The researchers found that, among participants aged 80 or older, at least, those who reported experiencing anger daily had both higher levels of inflammation and more chronic illness. Of course, chronic illness could easily disrupt sleep, which, as we know, increases anger, but this is certainly not the first study to link anger (and the stress hormone cortisol, which is raised during anger) to increased general inflammation. However, anger is not all bad….

The upsides
There are definite upsides to anger. If something in your life or in society is wrong, anger can signal to others that you feel wronged; expressions of anger can be a sign of innocence in the face of a false accusation, for instance. Anger can also push you into doing something to try to set things right. A 2020 study in Emotion, led by Julia Sasse, provided experimental evidence for this idea. The researchers staged the embezzlement of project funds from a lab. They found that the level of anger felt by a witness to this predicted whether or not they intervened to try to stop it. This study provided evidence of ‘the important role of anger in the psychological process underlying moral courage,’ the team wrote. Of course, a person’s individual moral framework is crucial here, though. If the sight of women venturing outdoors alone or going to work, say, deeply offends you, then your resulting outrage will likely propel you to action, too.

Expressing anger can also make you seem more authentic and sincere. At least, this was suggested by a 2021 study of Kickstarter pitch videos, led by Benjamin Warnick. Entrepreneurs are often encouraged to be only positive about their ventures, commented the researchers. But they found that those who expressed anger and fear as well as happiness had more fundraising success than those who conveyed only happiness. An angry expression can convey how much you care about something, the team explained. If you don’t actually feel angry, you could always fake it, though; I can’t refer to angry ‘expressions’ without noting the compelling theory that facial displays are not emotional expressions but ‘tools for social influence’. However, circumstances can affect our perceptions of anger in others…

Anger and bias
We can misperceive anger. In fact, student teachers in the US are more likely to misperceive black children as angry than white children, according to a 2020 paper in Emotion. The 178 prospective teachers in this study watched brief video clips of children aged 9-13 showing happiness, sadness, anger, fear or disgust (as these emotions are conventionally considered to be ‘expressed’). Overall, boys were more likely to be misperceived as angry – rather than afraid, say – than girls. But black boys and girls were more likely to be misperceived as angry than white children, and black boys were misperceived most of all. This bias could help to perpetuate racial differences in educational success, argues the team, led by Amy G. Halberstadt at North Caroline State University. The following year, Halberstadt and colleagues published another paper, finding that the older adults believe Black children to be, the more likely they are to (incorrectly) judge them to be angry, too. Perhaps educating student teachers about this bias will help them to avoid it – only future research will tell.

Misperceiving anger is clearly a danger not just for pupil-teacher relationships but for all kinds of everyday interactions. But it’s not as though there isn’t much genuine anger in the world to accurately perceive. To twist the title of one of Richard Curtis’s best-known movies, anger actually is all around – but the better we understand it, the more we can channel its positive aspects and take steps to ensure that it helps rather than harms us.

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