Anger Management

Anger is one of our most familiar emotions. Although anger has the potential to be constructive, motivating us to stand up for ourselves or for others, sometimes anger can become toxic. A times it is necessary to learn how to control this emotion.

A classic text on anger and anger management was published in 1975 and authored by psychologist Raymond Novaco. He described stress inoculation training, which is also used for management of anxiety and related conditions, as a method for managing anger.

Stress inoculation training for anger involves five main steps.

Step #1

Step one is learning how to relax with deep relaxation techniques. Examples of recommended strategies are progressive muscle relaxation, in which one progressively tenses and relaxes muscle groups throughout the body, and visualization of a special place in which you can relax (e.g., the beach, the woods, on top of a mountain). For stress inoculation to be effective, it is important that one master these relaxation techniques. For instance, in visualizing one’s special place, one should be able to conjure it up rapidly in a stressful situation and thereby reduce one’s stress. Mastery may take a few weeks.

Step #2

Step two is developing an anger hierarchy. The individual with the anger issue is instructed to write down at least 25 or 30 anger-inducing situations on a piece of paper. She next gets out a new piece of paper, selects the least anger-inducing and the most anger-inducing situations on the list, and places them at the top and bottom, respectively, of a new list. She chooses between 6 and 18 of the other items to place between these 2 so that an anger hierarchy with approximately equal anger increments between each item is created.

Step #3

Step three involves producing stress-coping thoughts for anger. According to McKay (1992), two types of thoughts tend to trigger anger: should statements and blaming statements. Should statements are based in the notion that someone else has done something wrong or has violated rules or norms. Usually, the person who is angry or somebody who she cares about was on the receiving end of the wrong act. One problem with this assumption is that people often disagree about what is appropriate, correct, or fair. A second problem, according to McKay, is that people often do what is right for them—what is in their self-interest—rather than what they should do. McKay suggests a number of statements one could say to oneself to cope with this idea of should, for instance, “My desire doesn’t obligate you to meet it,” “People are doing what they want to do, nor what I think they should do,” “I may not like it, but they’re doing the best they can,” “Nobody is right and nobody is wrong; we just have different needs,” and “People only change when they want to.”

Blaming statements may also lead to anger. When a person produces blaming statements, she believes that the pain or frustration s/he is feeling is caused by someone else. Also, she may believe that the other person is malicious, hurting her on purpose. Some examples of coping statements to deal with blaming include the following: “Blaming just upsets me; it doesn’t solve the problem,” “They’re not out to get me; they’re just pursuing their self-interests,” and “This is not personal.” Step three is an important part of stress inoculation, which must be personally tailored. Davis, Eshelman, and McKay (2008) provide many examples of possible coping statements and more detail about how to create personalized coping statements and what to do with them.

Step #4

Step four involves putting together the skills developed in steps one through three and using them in one’s imagination. First, the individual uses relaxation techniques, such as progressive muscle relaxation or imagery or both, for 10 to 15 minutes. Second, she selects the first item on the anger hierarchy (least anger inducing) and vividly visualizes the stressor. All of the senses should be actively engaged to feel like one is in the situation, intensely feeling the wrongness and unfairness. Both psychological and physical tension should result. Third, the individual practices coping by inducing the self-relaxation (e.g., imaging the special place) and repeating coping thoughts while continuing to imagine the anger-inducing situation. This should be done for at least a minute. Fourth, the individual rates anger level on a scale of 0 (no anger) to 10 (extremely intense anger). If the rating is 2 or above, the same situation should be repeated (imagining least anger-inducing item, etc.), this time trying different coping statements to relax. If it is one or zero, the individual may continue to the next event on the anger hierarchy and repeat the process. Eventually, all anger-inducing events on the hierarchy can be managed in one’s imagination.

Step #5

Step five involves using coping skills in real-life situations. In some cases, it is possible to anticipate a situation that could make one angry or frustrated. For example, an individual may intend to ask her boss with whom she has sometimes had interpersonal difficulty for a raise. Coping statements could be prepared in advance. Before meeting with the boss, the individual could engage in a relaxation technique and repeat coping statements to herself. If spontaneous anger-inducing situations occur, the individual is now better able to handle them (it is hoped).

The preceding description is a summary of stress inoculation for anger. Several excellent books provide more detailed instruction, including Davis, Eshelman, and McKay’s (2008) The Relaxation and Stress Reduction Workbook and McKay, Davis and Fanning’s (2007) Thoughts & Feelings: Taking Control of Your Moods & Your Life. Research has indicated that stress inoculation can be effective for decreasing anger. For instance, in a review of research, Sprague and Thyer (2003) reported that stress inoculation is helpful for treating children and adolescents with a disorder that involves anger as a primary symptom: oppositional defiant disorder.

  • Davis, M., Eshelman, E.R., & McKay, M. (2008). The relaxation and stress reduction workbook (6th ed.). Oakland, CA: New Harbinger.
  • McKay, M. (1992). Anger control groups. In M. McKay & K. Paleg (Eds.). Focal group psychotherapy (pp. 163 – 194). Oakland, CA: New Harbinger.
  • McKay, M., Davis, M., & Fanning, P. (2007). Thoughts & feelings: Taking control of your moods & your life. Oakland, CA: New Harbinger.
  • Novaco, R. (1975). Anger control: The development and evaluation of an experimental treatment. Lexington, MA: D.C. Health.
  • Sprague, A., & Thyer, B. (2003). Psychosocial treatment of oppositional defiant disorder: A review of empirical outcome studies. Social Work in Mental Health 1, 63 – 72.
  • 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