Anger Photo courtesy of CTRI [Crisis & Trauma Resource Institute]Opens in new window

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 fearOpens in new window describing a reaction to a specific stimulus and anxiety describing a more generalized reaction.

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 compulsionOpens in new window to respond to whatever caused it. For this reason, anger is often linked with aggressionOpens in new window.

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, blameOpens in new window 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) Opens in new window model of anger generation.

According to a leading competing theory, the appraisal theory of aggressionOpens in new window, 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 cortexOpens in new window of the brain is linked with increased aggressionOpens in new window. Additionally, two chemicals in the body may dysfunction in people who are aggressive: the hormone testosterone and the neurotransmitter (chemical messenger in the brain) serotoninOpens in new window. 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 violenceOpens in new window.

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.

See also:
  1. 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.
  2. 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.
  3. Kalat, J.W., & Shiota, M. N. (2007). Emotion. Belmont, CA: Thomson Wadsworth.
  4. Nelson, R.J. (Ed.). (2005). Biology of aggression. New York: Oxford University Press.
  5. Kalat, J.W., & Shiota, M.N. (2007), Emotion. Belmont, CA: Thomson Wadsworth.
  6. Nelson, R.J. (Ed.). (2005). Biology of aggression. New York: Oxford University Press.
  7. 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).
  8. 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.