A flushed face, pounding heart, the tendency to say words that were best left unspoken: these symptoms will be painfully familiar to anyone who has ever felt angry.
The Roman philosopher Seneca went as far as to describe anger as a “short madness” that sets us on the path to self-destruction – “very like a falling rock which breaks itself to pieces upon the very thing which it crushes”. In his view, it is our “most hideous and wild passion” and “fundamentally wicked”; he argued that “no plague has cost the human race more dearly”.
If so, we might be worried. Our helplessness in the face of the global pandemic and the frustrations of the lockdown may be leading many more of us to feel angrier than usual – leading, for example, to a 40% rise in divorce enquiries in the UK. But even at the best of times, a conflict with our colleagues or an argument with a family member may lead us to actions we later regret.
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It doesn’t need to be this way, however. While overt aggression is clearly a destructive force, some recent experiments suggest that anger, and related emotions like frustration or irritation, can also bring some advantages – provided we know how to channel the energy arising from those feelings.
Indeed, the experts argue putting our angry feelings to good use may be far more effective than simply suppressing them. “Suppression just leaves you feeling exhausted,” explains R David Lebel, an organisational scientist at the University of Pittsburgh. “So for me, it’s all about where we’re going to direct that energy.”
So what are those benefits? And how can we harness them?
As a first example of anger’s potential benefits, let’s begin with fitness. It makes sense that the emotion, which evolved to prepare the body for a fight, might result in a burst of strength – and there is now a lot of evidence that this may give you the edge in many sports. “Anger is a kind of mobilising emotion that is physiologically activating,” explains Brett Ford at the University of Toronto, Canada. “And you can use that activation to serve a physical goal.”
Being fouled before a shot could cause angry basketballers to be more accurate in their throws, research suggests (Credit: Getty Images)
In one experiment, first published in 2009, sports scientists in the UK asked participants to imagine an intensely annoying scenario, before they underwent a test of leg strength, in which they were asked to kick as hard and as fast as they could for five minutes while a machine measured the force of their movements. The anger led to a significant boost in their performance, as they channelled their frustration into the exercise, compared to participants who felt more neutral. Later studies found similar benefits in ball pitching, and jumping: the angrier they felt, the faster their pitch and the higher they jumped.
Besides providing an explosion of energy, anger can also increase accuracy – as an analysis of NBA players recently revealed. The researchers examined players’ responses free throws after a “clear path foul”, in which an opponent deliberately makes contact with a player just before they are about to take a shot at an open, unobstructed basket. A clear path foul is thought to be especially egregious because the shot would have been so easy to score.
If the traditional views of anger were true, you would expect the feeling of frustration, after the foul, would destroy their accuracy during the free throw, but the exact opposite was true. The players were more likely to score after the flagrant foul, compared with other free throws that had not arisen from such frustrating circumstances.
Ice hockey players, incensed at foul play, are more likely to score after a penalty than during a shootout decider at the end of a game
To be sure that this result was not simply a peculiarity of basketball, the researchers also examined scores in the National Hockey League. Analysing 8,467 shots, they found that players, incensed at foul play, are more likely to score after a penalty than during a shootout decider at the end of a game.
The researchers emphasise that free throws and penalty shots are well-practiced and relatively straight-forward moves; you may not see the same benefits on more complex tasks. But in these circumstances at least, the sense of injustice sharpened the athlete’s resolve and boosted their performance.
A burst of anger can be a spark for greater creativity (Credit: Getty Images)
Lebel, who has recently been watching The Last Dance basketball documentary from ESPN, points to Michael Jordan as an athlete who managed to turn his anger to his advantage in this way. “He would take any slight from an opponent or coach and completely channel it and use it in the next game.”
The spark of creativity
Away from the sports field, anger appears to improve persistence and perseverance at cognitive challenges.
In one fiendish experiment, Heather Lench, at the Texas A&M University, and Linda Levine at the University of California, Irvine, first asked their participants to resolve a set of 21 five-letter anagrams – which were presented as a test of verbal intelligence. You can try a couple yourself:
If you’re struggling to solve them, and feeling frustrated by your failure – well, that’s exactly the point. The first seven anagrams in the experiment looked real, but like these examples, they were impossible to solve. The researchers wanted to measure the effects of those "failures" on mood and motivation, so they questioned the participants about their emotions at each stage of the test and measured how long they lingered on each puzzle.
As you might expect, each participant responded differently to the impossible anagrams: some felt anxious after the failure, some felt sad and some were completely unphased. But it was the angriest people who were the most persistent throughout the task. Rather than causing them to give up, the annoyance seemed to energise them, so that they were more persistent on each subsequent puzzle.
Uncontrolled anger, or overt aggression, very rarely has a positive outcome (Credit: Getty Images)
A burst of anger can also spark greater creativity. In brainstorming tasks, angry people come up with more original and varied solutions, compared to people who had been primed to feel sad or emotionally neutral. The increased arousal appears to super-charge the mind, allowing it to draw connections that are unavailable in other emotion states.
The initial burst of creative energy appears to burn out quickly, but these benefits are worth considering whenever you face an irritating obstacle at work. Whether it’s unfair feedback from others or an unforeseen technical glitch, the unpleasant feelings of frustration could just inspire the breakthrough.
When interpreting these kinds of results, Ford emphasises that the context of the situation and the intensity of the feelings are all important. “Moderation is key.”
A sense of perspective will be especially important when you decide to express your anger to others. Giving free reign to your anger, with overt aggression or hostility, is rarely advisable, but there is some evidence that controlled expressions of anger can be effective at changing opinions; moderately angry participants tend to perform better in negotiations and confrontations. “If your goal is to confront somebody – to be assertive and to assert dominance – then anger may help you do that,” says Ford.
People with high emotional intelligence know this instinctively: working with Maya Tamir at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, Ford found that people who score high on tests of emotional intelligence are more likely to cultivate feelings of anger before a confrontation. Interestingly, this seems to be related to greater overall wellbeing: knowing when to express your anger, and how to do so appropriately, may help you to recover more quickly from a stressful situation, leading to better psychological health.
So how can the rest of us go about learning those skills? “That’s the money question,” says Ford.
Cognitive behavioural therapy could be needed for people who cannot control their aggression (Credit: Getty Images)
In a recent paper, Lebel outlined some guidelines on the ways we might channel our anger to bring about positive change. He advises that you exercise patience, planning your response before you initiate a confrontation, so that you have enough time to articulate your feelings. “Recognise your anger, and then wait a few hours or a day, and think about how you can bring it up more constructively.” You might also try to pre-empt the kind of responses that may trigger you to lose your focus and think through an appropriate reply.
He also suggests looking at the broader context of the problem. At work, for example, you might examine the way the situation influences your colleagues or the organisation, rather than focusing just on yourself – which also might help you to express your feelings in a more constructive way. “That will reduce the potential downsides of speaking up, if you can kind of take it and apply it to something bigger,” he says.
If you feel overwhelmed by angry feelings, and don’t know how to react, you might also consider using some psychological strategies to cool your thinking. Cognitive behavioural therapy, in which a counsellor can guide you through new ways of reframing your emotions, will be necessary for people with serious aggressive tendencies. But new research shows that even relatively simple steps can bring significant behavioural change.
One powerful technique is “psychological distancing”. This can involve imagining yourself looking back on provoking the event from a point in the future, or putting yourself in the shoes of a friend, and asking yourself how they might advise you to react. Importantly, psychological distancing will not completely eliminate the feelings, but it can take the edge off your temper, and help you to make wiser decisions about the best way to respond. Even the simple act of talking to yourself in the third person (saying “David feels angry because…”) as if you are advising a friend, rather than yourself, has been shown to encourage a more constructive attitude to events.
Experts argue putting our angry feelings to good use may be far more effective than simply suppressing them (Credit: Getty Images)
You could also try putting pen to paper. Multiple studies have found that expressing our feelings in the written word can help us to make sense of painful feelings, which should allow you to respond more constructively.
Tact and discretion
These techniques may take time and effort, but the evidence so far is clear: a greater appreciation of anger’s effects – both good and bad – will put you on the path to a healthier and happier life.
One of the Seneca’s predecessors knew as much. Whereas the Roman Stoic described anger as fundamentally wicked, the Greek philosopher Aristotle acknowledged its potential to bring about positive change, provided that it did not undermine reason.
In his view, the great challenge was “to be angry with the right person, and to the right degree, and at the right time, and for the right purpose, and in the right way”. The latest scientific research may put us all a little bit closer to achieving that wisdom.
* David Robson is the author of The Intelligence Trap: Why Smart People Do Dumb Things, which offers a cognitive toolkit for making wiser decisions. He is @d_a_robson on Twitter.
For many of us, the pandemic has triggered some unfamiliar emotions, and made others feel more intense. In this series, we explore the root of these reactions, whether they have hidden benefits and how we can learn to navigate them better.
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