Why it can be good to be angry

We live in an age of relative peace and plenty. Globally, poverty is falling and life expectancy is increasing. In the developed world we are safer and wealthier than at any time in human history. So then, why are we so angry all the time? From road rage to social media tirades, it often seems like the planet is in a state of perpetual fury.

In a new series of programmes, Oliver Burkman asks Why Are We So Angry? He explores where all this anger comes from, why we feel it, and how it isn’t always such a bad thing.

Why did we evolve to feel anger?

What was the motivation, way back in our evolutionary past, for someone to get angry with someone else?

In the past, people who had no anger were walked over. People stole from them and treated them poorly and as a result they died out.
Aaron Sell, professor of Psychology and Criminology at Heidelberg University USA

Aaron Sell, a professor of Psychology and Criminology at Heidelberg University in the USA, explains how “anger is a very sophisticated system… to put it dramatically it’s a mind control device. It’s a way of getting into someone else’s head and making them value you more. It’s a way of winning conflicts with them by changing their mind.”

He describes how an important part of this “mind control” comes from the human “anger face”: enhancing the brow ridge and the thickness of the jaw and widening the nostrils. “Each of these changes that anger makes to the face makes you look physically stronger.” We know that the “anger face” is inherited, not learned because, says Aaron, “blind children will produce normal anger faces.”

So how did a good “anger face” give our ancestors the upper hand?

The “Recalibrational Theory”

It should be logical that those who didn’t get angry and into fights should have outlived those that did, but that isn’t what happened.

“What did happen,” Aaron says, is that “people who had a particular kind of anger out-reproduced those that didn’t.” They did it by bargaining for better treatment and winning conflicts of interest.

“In the past, people who had no anger were walked over,” says Aaron. People stole from them and treated them poorly and “as a result they died out.” The ones who survived were those who threatened to withdraw cooperation, readily reminding others of all the good they do, in a way that recalibrated their fellow man and made them more grateful – which resulted in better treatment. Anger gave these humans an evolutionary edge.

What happens to our bodies when we get angry?

To understand anger we need to think about what it does to us physiologically, how it makes us act and think – or, more accurately, not think.

Professor Ryan Martin, Chair of the Psychology programme at UW-Green Bay, is an anger researcher who hosts the All the Rage podcast. When you get angry, Ryan says, “Your sympathetic nervous system, your fight or flight system, kicks in. Your heart rate increases, you’re breathing rate increases, you start to sweat” and “your digestive system slows down”. This physiological reaction from the body is all aimed to energise you to respond to whatever injustice you’re feeling.

And the brain is doing its bit too. “We also know that when people are feeling intensely, their thoughts do tend to be a little bit more compartmentalised,” Ryan says. “They’re more focused on survival” or “getting revenge”. That’s adaptive too. You don’t want to be thinking about other things if you’re trying to respond to this particular injustice.

Why modern life can fuel our anger

Ostensibly, we have less to worry about than our ancestors, so why is modern life so rage-inducing?

Someone getting angry can be good, if, whilst they’re angry, they channel the energy in a productive way.
Philosopher and psychotherapist Mark Vernon

It’s simple, Ryan says: “People are busier and have increased demands on their life, so the consequences of being slowed down feel so much worse now.” If we have to queue in the supermarket or get put on hold to our energy supplier, we very quickly become angry – because we don’t have time to waste. It’s the things that “could have been avoided and that leave us feeling helpless” that make us feel angry.

The way we have evolved to feel angry and react, says Oliver, “doesn’t always work so well in the modern world.”

Can we control our anger more than we think?

Obviously hurting the person you’re angry with isn’t helpful or productive, so we need to find other ways to channel our anger.

We have more control over this than we think says Maya Tamir, a psychology professor at The Hebrew University of Jerusalem. Emotions aren’t necessarily the result of evolution, says Maya, “they are learned tools, that we develop, and we change and we cultivate in very creative ways.”

Her research has shown how anger doesn’t always need to trigger aggression. “If emotions are constructed and learned,” as well as simply inherited, then “emotions such as anger don’t necessarily have a fixed effect and behaviour.”

“We are not puppets on a string,” says Maya. “Anger doesn’t make us aggressive without any control on our part.”

Mark Vernon, a philosopher and psychotherapist, explains how ancients in the Platonic and Aristotelian tradition believed there was something called “right anger.” They felt that someone getting angry can be good, if, whilst they’re angry, they channel the energy in a productive way. Rage can inspire someone to “do something with courage or it can inspire them to put together a good argument that might make the case for justice.”

Why anger goes viral

Aleks Krotoski, Dr Ryan Martin and Pankaj Mishra discuss how anger works online.

Using anger for good

So anger can make us see red. It can make us aggressive, physically or verbally, or on Twitter. If those that need to maintain their power and status feel angry is can result in devastating consequences – many world leaders think nothing of starting wars.

But it can also focus our mind, and give us the energy to take action when we have been wronged.

Anger isn’t bad per se, we just need to exercise control over the powerful and unwieldy emotion, and channel it effectively, so we’re not destined to an endless spiral of anger and aggression.