Advice on Anger

This week's post is written by Sooth Lab member, Daniel Sude. Daniel is a Ph.D. Student in Communication at Ohio State University and holds two Master's Degrees: an M.A. in Psychology from the Culture & Self Lab at the University of British Columbia and an M.A. in the Social Sciences from the Rios Conformity, Attitudes, Threat, and Self Lab at the University of Chicago.

Anger is a tricky emotion – it can help us to confront problems. It can also lead to mistakes.

On the Soothstream many people are experiencing anger. However, rather than raging at their problem, they tend to express it in a thoughtful way.

Let’s take an example:

I am the breadwinner in my family which makes my husband feel slightly inferior. At least, that's how I see it. He doesn't ever fess up to it but I can tell he's embarrassed when other couples come for dinner and it becomes clear he's in charge of most of the domestic duties. Usually it flares up the night after we have friends over and I notice he tries to slack off or do things in a way I obviously don't like or don't think is good enough. Last night, he left all the dishes out after 2 of our best couple friends were over so there was quite the mess. I don't know whether to make a point of it by leaving them out, or just cleaning up myself. I feel like it wouldn't be this way if our roles were gender reversed.

So here a Soother has a strong impression that her husband has wronged her. There’s a division of labor in the relationship – he has slacked off. She’s, at least, a little angry.

When something makes you angry it can have some almost paradoxical effects. It tends to elevate physiological arousal (Henry, 1986) – your heart rate for example. In this state of heightened arousal – you probably want to get things done. If your salient goals are constructive, that energy can be wonderful. I will talk more about that in a moment.

Sometimes, however, all we want to do is defend ourselves against “being wronged” and put the wrongdoer in their place. When we feel that way, we can charge ahead like a bull in a china shop and take whatever path we need to get the satisfaction of winning (see both Tiedens and Linton (2001) and Moons and Mackie (2007) for a debate about anger, certainty, and thoughtfulness).

So our Soother may “make a point” and leave the dishes out. She may also scream at her spouse. In screaming at her spouse, she may accuse him of sexism, of being lazy, of any variety of things. Each of these strategies represents a shortcut – a way of reducing a complex situation to a simple “the other person is wrong, I am right” story.

Let’s say she’s more cautious. She could just clean up the dishes (forgiving him this lapse) and try to put it behind her. She could also stew in silent resentment. She could also talk to him, getting his perspective.

Now, it would be great if talking could solve everything. But in reality, we have limited knowledge of ourselves, so we communicate in limited ways. We also have limited knowledge of other people, even people we really, really love.

But, remember how anger can give you energy? What if you eschew winning and its associated shortcuts? Can you harness your anger to gain knowledge?

Anger tends to promote more active thinking even among people who are dispositionally low in a Need for Cognition (DeSteno, Petty, Rucker, Wegener, & Braverman, 2004). Even people who prefer to think less think more when they are angry. Often these thoughts are ranting and biased. But they don’t have to be.

Our Soother, for example, has given thoughtful, careful consideration to her husband’s behavior. Her first interpretation is that he feels embarrassed, won’t “fess up,” and is acting out. Maybe our Soother is missing something . . .

Well, aware of that possibility, she asked the Soothstream.

Hopefully, we helped!

Of the suggestions on the Soothstream, some dealt with perspective-taking.

Good perspective-taking (ask the cultural Anthropologist/Social Psychologist/Communication researcher), can be exhausting.

Effective perspective-taking requires simulating multiple possibilities – using a combination of introjection and projection. When introjecting, we bring what is foreign about another person’s experience into our own heads.  When projecting we think about our own, familiar experiences, and use them to make sense of someone else.

It is an iterative process – repeating again and again – because people who have very different perspectives, very different thoughts and feelings, can sometimes behave in similar ways.  There is a lot of ambiguity. Accuracy can be difficult.

What if our Soother’s husband is simply tired out by parties? What if he was drinking and got exhausted? What if he was embarrassed and he just needs a little time to get his head straight before he washes up?

Can anger help us muster the energy to identify these possibilities? Can anger help us to be more accurate? If we avoid being defensive, the answer is yes.

How can we learn from her honesty and effort as we go forth and get angry in our own lives?

  • Acknowledge your anger
  • If you don’t have to act in the moment, use anger’s energy to help you to be more creative and more sophisticated in your perspective-taking.
  • Generate multiple possible scenarios about what’s going on with the other person.
  • When it’s time to resolve the situation – make your best guess about what’s going on.
  • Learn from the outcome.

Remember all that work you did when a new situation comes along.

Anger is a constant, we can plan around it, work with it, and channel it in constructive ways.