Anger is one of our most passionate emotions, and potentially one of the most dangerous. Our scientific understanding of anger has developed over the decades, but behavioral scientists still lack clarity in their conceptions of anger and related emotions, whereas conceptions of some other emotions, such as fear, are better developed. For instance, fear and anxiety have been distinguished, with fear describing a reaction to a specific stimulus and anxiety describing a more generalized reaction. Scientists could, and possibly should, develop more refined concepts of anger and related states.

Definitions of anger vary and have different foci. Kalat and Shiota (2007) describe anger as the emotional state associated with a wish to hurt someone or to push him away. If anger is defined from the point of view of its function, anger is related to self-defense or to the overcoming of obstacles that stand in the way of reaching a goal (e.g., Sarni, Campos, Camras, & Witherington, 2006). Whether anger is defined from a more affective or a more functional viewpoint, it is typically a response to a specific stimulus, whether real or imagined—a threat, an unpleasant or annoying situation, an unfair situation, and so forth. Most theories agree that anger is a drive—it is associated with a compulsion to respond to whatever caused it. For this reason, anger is often linked with aggression.

What exactly elicits an anger reaction can vary from person to person. Scherer and Wallbott (1994) concluded research on the most common causes of anger. They found that people most often felt angry in situations that were unpleasant, unfair, and intentionally caused by someone else. This study and others have suggested that in many cases, anger and blame go hand in hand. However, blame is not necessary for anger. For instance, an individual may become angry when s/he is frustrated, such as when s/he is busy working on their computer to meet a deadline and the computer is slow and keeps crashing. S/He may want to hit the computer. Likely there is no person to blame in this circumstance, but many people would describe their emotional reaction as one of anger.

Attempts to explain all causes of anger with a single theory have so far proved unsuccessful; competing theories exist about what causes anger and how anger is related to aggressive behavior. One lading theory is that either pain/discomfort or believing that someone has hostile intent toward one causes anger, and anger directly leads to aggressive behavior. This theory is called Berkowitz’s cognitive neoassociationistic (CAN) model of anger generation. According to a leading competing theory, the appraisal theory of aggression, appraisal of hostile intent is necessary for anger, and adding pain or discomfort will increase the anger. Either the pain/discomfort by itself or the anger (which includes both pain/discomfort and appraisal of hostile intent) may lead to aggressive behavior. A key difference in these theories is whether we need to blame someone to become angry (according to the appraisal theory, we do, whereas according to the CAN model, we do not). Kalat and Shiota (2007) suggest that both theories could be correct, but for different ages. Children, especially infants, could become frustrated and then angry, then perhaps aggressive, without any appraisal of hostile intent. For instance, removing a source of amusement, such as a rattle, from an infant’s grasp often produces an angry facial expression in the infant. Most researchers believe that very young children are not attributing blame. However, adults are more likely to add a cognitive (thinking) component to their experience of anger and more often attribute blame.

Researchers interested in anger have attempted to address the question of whether anger is an inborn emotion. One way to examine this issue is to observe the facial expression of emotion and evaluate the degree to which it is similar across cultures. Consistent with a genetic interpretation, American psychologist Paul Ekman, who has done extensive cross-cultural research on emotional expression, found that people around the world recognize an angry facial expression (Ekman et al., 1987).

Considerable research has been conducted on biological aspects of anger. Researchers have not found a single biological mechanism that is associated with producing either anger or aggression. However, there is some consensus that anger and aggression are much more likely in people who are deficient in biological mechanisms that normally inhibit anger and aggression. Damage to the prefrontal cortex of the brain is linked with increased aggression. Additionally, two chemicals in the body may dysfunction in people who are aggressive: the hormone testosterone and the neurotransmitter (chemical messenger in the brain) serotonin. Nelson’s (2005) edited book reviews research on biological aspects of aggression.

Anger is an emotion that can motivate constructive behaviors, such as standing up for one’s rights, but it can also prompt destructive displays of verbal aggression, possibly permanently harming relationships, or of physical aggression, potentially leading to serious injury that ruins the lives of both the recipient and the perpetrator of the violence. Given the importance of this emotion, our theoretical understanding and research-based knowledge are relatively unsophisticated. This leaves room for innovative and productive studies that will shed new light on anger and its causes and provide information that will help people to channel anger constructively.

  • Anderson, S.W., Bechara, A., Damasio, H., Tranel, D., & Damasio, A.R. (1999). Impairment of social and moral behavior related to early damage in human prefrontal cortex. Nature Neuroscience, 2, 1032 – 1037.
  • Ekman, P., Friesen, W.V., O’Sullivan, M., Chan, A., Diacoyanni-Tarlatzis, I., Heider, K., et al. (1987). Universals and cultural differences in the judgments of facial expressions of emotion. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 53, 712 – 717.
  • Kalat, J.W., & Shiota, M. N. (2007). Emotion. Belmont, CA: Thomson Wadsworth.
  • Nelson, R.J. (Ed.). (2005). Biology of aggression. New York: Oxford University Press.
  • Kalat, J.W., & Shiota, M.N. (2007), Emotion. Belmont, CA: Thomson Wadsworth.
  • Nelson, R.J. (Ed.). (2005). Biology of aggression. New York: Oxford University Press.
  • Saarni, C., Campos, J. J., Camras, L.A., & Witherington, D. (2006). Emotional development: Action, communication, and understanding. In W. Damon, R.M. Lerner (Series Eds.), & Eisenberg (Vol. Ed.), Handbook of child psychology: Vol. 3. Social emotional and personality development (pp. 226 – 299).
  • Scherer, K.R., & Wallbott, H.G. (1994). Evidence for universality and cultural variation of differential emotion response patterning. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 66, 310 – 328.
  • Since cognitive science Opens in new window has taken on board this commonsense view of the mind, an important question is how such a relationship to a proposition can be implemented.

    The representation theory of mind (RTM; Field, 1978; Fodor, 1978) assumes that a propositional attitude consists in holding a representation of the proposition and that this representation plays a certain functional role in the economy of mental states. This can be best illustrated with the two core concepts: belief and desire.

    These are core concepts, since knowing what someone believes (thinks) to be the case (e.g., Max thinking the chocolate is in the cupboard and thinking that going there will get the chocolate into his possession) and what that person desires (wants) (e.g., Max wanting the chocolate to be in his possession) allows us to make a behavioral prediction that Max will approach the cupboard. This kind of inference is known since Aristotle as the practical syllogism.

    Searle (1983, after Anscombe, 1957) points out that these two states are mirror images in terms of causal direction and direction of fit. The function of a belief is to be caused by reality and the believed proposition should match reality.

    For instance, the chocolate being in the cupboard should be responsible for Max’s believing that the chocolate is in the cupboard (world to mind causation) and the proposition “the chocolate is in the cupboard” should thus match the relevant state of affairs in the world (mind should fit world).

    The function of desire (want) is to cause a change in the world (mind to world causation) so that the world conforms to the desired proposition (world should fit mind)—for example, if Max wants the chocolate to be in the cupboard, then this desire should cause action leading to a change of the chocolate’s location such that it conforms to what Max desires.

    This trivial-sounding example does highlight the important distinctions.

    Three Important Distinctions

    1. First vs. Third Person

    One important distinction is between first-person and third-person attribution of mental states. A third-person attribution is an attribution to another person and a first-person attribution is one to myself.

    For instance, if Max erroneously believes that the chocolate is still in the cupboard (because he didn’t see that it was unexpectedly put into the drawer), then a third-person observer will attribute a false belief to Max. In contrast, Max himself will make a first-person attribution of knowledge to himself.

    The observer can capture this difference between her own and Max’s subjective view by the second-order attribution that Max thinks he knows where the chocolate is. This is useful to keep in mind when it comes to false memories. Since a memory can only be a recollection of something that actually occurred, a false memory is not a memory by third-person attribution, although it is by first-person attribution.

    1. Sense and Reference

    A related second point has to do with Frege’s (1892/1960) distinction between sense and reference. Since mental states involve representations, they connect us to objects and events in the real (or a possible) world.

    Famously, Oedipus knew and married Iocaste (referent: a particular person), but he did not know or marry her as his mother but as an unrelated queen (sense: how Iocaste was presented to Oedipus’ mind).

    Thus, in third-person parlance we can say that Oedipus married his mother if we use the expression “his mother” to pick out (refer to) the individual whom he married without implying that he knew Iocaste under that description. In first-person description of the event Oedipus would not have used the descriptor “my mother.”

    These distinctions are useful to keep in mind when discussing infants’ ability to remember particular events: Whenever a memory trace of a unique event can be demonstrated then one can conclude (in first-person parlance) as a particular event—that is, that the infant makes cognitive distinctions that represent that event as a particular event.

    1. Having vs. Representing a Mental State

    The third important distinction is that between being in a mental state (or having an attitude) and representing that mental state.

    For understanding or knowing that a person is in a mental state, or to reflect on one’s own mental states, one has to be able to represent that state. In order to be able to represent a state, one needs a concept of that state—that is, a rich enough theory of mind.

    The study of how children acquire the requisite theory of mind is therefore essential for our understanding of how children come to understand memory. Furthermore, since some memorial states are reflective or self-referential, children need a theory of mind for being in such states or having such memories.

    Why We Need a Theory of Mind for Memory

    We probably do not need a theory of mind for implicit (nondeclarative Opens in new window) memory, but for explicit (declarative Opens in new window) memory we do, since “explicit memory is revealed when performance on a task requires conscious recollection of previous experiences.” (Schacter, 1987).

    To be conscious of a fact one requires to be also aware of the state with which one beholds that fact. The higher-order-thought theories of consciousness make this their core claim (Armstrong, 1980; Rosenthal, 1986).

    For instance, if one sees a state of affairs X (e.g., that the chocolate is in the cupboard), then this seeing is a first-order mental state (attitude).

    To be conscious of this state of affairs means, according to theory, that one entertains a second-order thought about the seeing—that is, the second-order thought represents the first-order seeing.

    A weaker version does not require that one has to entertain the second-order thought, but only that one has to have the potential for having the second-order thought (Carruthers, 1996). That some such condition must be true can be seen from the following consideration:

    “Could it ever be that I can genuinely claim that I am consciously aware of the chocolate being in the cupboard, but claim ignorance of the first-order mental state by which I behold this state of affairs—that is, by claiming that I have no clue as to whether I see, or just think of, or want the chocolate being in the cupboard?”

    The important point of these conceptual analyses is that to be conscious of some fact requires some minimal concept of knowledge or of some perceptual state like seeing.

    Unfortunately, there is no clear evidence when children understand a minimal state of this sort. There is some evidence of understanding (mother’s) emotional reactions and seeing (direction of gaze) in the first year of life (see Perner, 1991, chap. 6; Baldwin & Moses, 1996; Gopnik & Meltzoff, 1997, for summaries and discussion of problems of interpretation).

    There is also some recent evidence that between 8 and 12 months children might be inferring people’s intentions to grasp an object from where that person looks (Spelke, Philips, & Woodward, 1995) and even between 5 to 9 months from how a person touches an object (seemingly intentional or accidentally).

    And by 18 months (where children’s understanding of mental phenomena seems to flourish in general) children imitate people’s intended actions even when they observe a failed attempt (Meltzoff, 1955a) and they understand differences in preferences (e.g., that someone else can prefer cauliflower over biscuits, Repacholi & Gopnik, 1997).

    Evidence that children distinguish their knowledge from ignorance is available at a relatively late age. Povinelli, Perilloux, and Bierschwale (1993) asked children to look for a sticker under one of three cups.

    Children were first trained to look under the cup at which the experimenter had pointed. After some training even the youngest were able to do this.

    When asked to look without the experimenter pointing, an interesting developmental difference emerged. Children older than 2 years and 4 months acted without hesitation when they knew which the cup the sticker was under, but hesitated noticeably when—in the absence of the experimenter’s poining—they had to guess where it was.

    Interestingly this is also the age at which children start using the phrase “I don’t know” (Shatz, Wellman, & Silber, 1983). In contrast, children younger than that showed no comparable difference in reaction time. This may indicate that young 2-year-olds do not yet reflect on what they do and do not know.

    So, theory of mind research is not yet able to give a guideline for when infants might develop explicit, conscious memories. Memory development may help out on this point.

    Meltzoff (1985, 1995b) demonstrated that 14-month-old infants can reenact a past event (e.g., they imitate the experimenter leaning forward to touch a panel with forehead so that panel lights up) after several months. Recently this has been demonstrated in 11-month-olds with a delay of 3 months.

    Since this is achieved from a brief observational period and does not require prolonged learning, and since patients with amnesia cannot do this (McDonough, Mandler, KcKee, & Squire, 1995), it is tempting to conclude that such enactment demonstrates explicit, conscious memory.

    One should, though, keep in mind that delayed imitation that is based on a single event (third-person view) is not to be equated with a memory (knowledge) of that event as a single, past event (first-person view).

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      Adapted from: The Oxford Handbook of Memory. Authored by ENDEL TULVING (ED.), Fergus I. M. Craik