Too Much Anger Versus Too Little

We headed this chapter with a quotation from Aristotle's Nicomachean Ethics in which he suggests that the trick with anger is not to be angry but to be angry in the right way; that is, anger should be an appropriate response to events in their social and psychological context. As with much of the discussion in this chapter, this proposal applies not just to anger but to all emotions. Consider Aristotle again:

For instance, both fear and confidence and appetite and anger and pity and in general pleasure and pain may be felt both too much and too little, and in both cases not well; but to feel them at the right times, with reference to the right objects, towards the right people, with the right motive, and in the right way, is what is both intermediate and best, and this is characteristic of virtue. (Nicomachean Ethics, 1106e20)

In Aristotle's view, it is as bad to show little or no emotion when the situation requires it as it is to show too much emotion in that situation. What this appropriate emotional response should be will vary considerably as a function of the social and interpersonal context in which the individuals find themselves.

Earlier in the chapter we considered research that investigated the sort of circumstances in which anger was seen as appropriate. Clearly the implication is that anger in other circumstances is somehow inappropriate. In most such cases the situation is self-correcting—people realise that they have over-reacted to a situation, or that their anger was not justified because the events to which it was a reaction were perhaps not deliberate, or were unavoidable, or were not due to negligence. However, sometimes this self-correction procedure is absent and anger slides down the slope from order to disorder. Implicit in all of this analysis is the suggestion that, although anger can sometimes be excessive or misplaced, it has a genuine and important function in our psychological and social existence. Indeed, this is the Aristotelian line that we have taken throughout this volume; emotions are functional states which enable individuals to deal with events that conflict with, interrupt, or facilitate their active goals. This suggests that, as well potential problems with excessive or misplaced anger, there may also be difficulties with too little anger. Again, this point is far from being trivial, both philosophically and also in terms of the consequences for an individual's health of failures to experience or express anger. In this section we endeavour to provide a brief historical and cross-cultural analysis of some of these issues.

A review of the historical teachings on anger reveals that the Stoic philosophers were alone in suggesting that anger is never appropriate in any situation and that any expression of anger is excessive. The Stoic flag was carried principally by the philosopher Seneca, and in De Ira he presents the case that anger has no value and in fact is: "the most hideous and frenzied of all the emotions" (p. 107). An excellent review of Seneca's ideas is provided by Averill (1982), and we will supply only the briefest of summaries here. Seneca's principal thesis was that no provocation adequately justifies anger, no situation permits it, and no benefit is ever gained by it. Once individuals allow themselves to become angry, that anger entirely consumes its possessors and prevents them from controlling their own behaviour, dulls their capacity for reasoning and sensible action, and harbours the potential to provoke people to the most terrible crimes on both the individual and the state level. Consider, in illustration, the following story which Seneca told of Cambyses, the King of Persia, who was much addicted to wine. At a banquet one of Cambyses' closest friends, Praexaspes, urged him to drink more sparingly, declaring that drunkenness was unbecoming to someone in his high position. Cambyses was insulted and consequently drank even more heavily than he had before. When he was sufficiently intoxicated he asked his servants to bring before him Praexaspes' son. Then, in order to show to the father that the enormous amount of wine that he had drunk did not affect his performance, he unerringly shot the son through the heart with an arrow. Seneca uses this story to illustrate the supreme irrationality of acts carried out in anger. However, an alternative argument (Averill, 1982) might be that if Cambyses' purpose had been to silence and intimidate his critic, as well as to demonstrate the steadiness of his hand, there would be few better ways of doing so!

As we have noted, Seneca's arguments go considerably against the grain of the philosophical teachings of his time. Consequently, he endeavoured to pre-empt his critics by suggesting a number of problems with his ideas; for example: Should not a man become angry in defence of others, for example if his father is murdered or his mother outraged before his eyes? Certainly not! retorts Seneca. Such anger is a sign of weakness not of loyalty; it is far better for an individual to defend and seek retribution for such wrongs merely by using his or her sense of duty, acting with complete volition, using rational judgement, and moved neither by impulse nor fury. Here Seneca is not denying the psychological imperative to feel angry. What Seneca is suggesting is that this initial prompting need not be yielded to. The individual should control his anger and make decisions in a rational and sensible way as to what punishment is required.

What are we to make of Seneca's ideas? The principal problem, in our view, is Seneca's understanding of the concept of anger as a passion. Modern psychology distinguishes between "reactive aggression" which is typically a consequence or action tendency of an immediate appraisal of anger, versus "instrumental aggression" which may be motivated by something other than anger such as a personality trait like psychopathy (Blair, Mitchell, & Blair, 2005). Seneca is content to argue that it is the passionate nature of anger which makes it dangerous; anger, once generated, can overwhelm the individual and become responsible for heinous crimes, whereas now we would want to consider acts of aggression as the problem whatever their source. However, in the same breath Seneca suggests that such compelling passion can be brought under volitional control such that it is eliminated from our psychological life; the psychological imperative can be resisted. Such idealism seems to ignore two fundamental points about the psychology of emotion and, indeed, the human condition: first, anger is a passion and, in some situations or in some individuals, it will be uncontrollable and outside the influence of volitional power (see below); second, attempts to control or master such passion are liable to have "costs" in other parts of the system and it is possible that these costs will outweigh the gains of replacing anger with rational deliberate decision making (e.g., Breuer & Freud, 1895). It is this latter point to which we turn next.

The area of emotion, emotion regulation, and health is an empirical and theoretical minefield; however, reviews can be found in Kennedy-Moore and Watson (1999) and in Philippot and Feldman (2004). We shall restrict ourselves to considering briefly the question of whether individuals who suppress their expression of anger suffer greater cardiovascular reactivity and related problems. In research that directly tries to establish links between the expression of anger and cardiovascular reactivity (CVR), individuals are most usually classified as "anger in" (suppression of anger) or "anger out" (expression of anger) on the basis of self-report measures (e.g., Spielberger et al., 1985), although even this distinction is considered to be too simplistic by some (see Linden et al., 2003). A typical finding is that of Dimsdale et al. (1986) who found a significant relationship between higher levels of systolic blood pressure and suppressed anger for white men, a trend in black men, and no relationship in women.

However, the picture is considerably more confused than this (see Siegman & Wolfe, 1994; Suinn, 2001; Suls & Bunde, 2005) with the evidence for associations between suppressed anger and diastolic blood pressure being weaker, and between heart rate and suppressed anger often turning out to be negative (e.g., Lawler et al., 1993). The bottom line seems to be one that Aristotle would heartily endorse: that suppression of anger and the chronic full-blown expression of anger may both be significant risk factors for cardiovascular disease (Siegman, 1993), and that a moderate amount of anger expression may be protective (Bleil et al., 2004; Eng et al., 2003).

In this section we are in good company in arguing that, although anger often goes wrong, thereby causing great misery and distress, it serves important and necessary psychological, social, and health functions. Furthermore, even if we dispute this functional argument, we have suggested that it would be very difficult if not impossible to eliminate anger completely from our emotional lives due to the psychological imperatives that drive its generation.

A consideration of the role of anger in other cultures and societies does reveal some groups in which anger is rare (although interestingly none in which it is absent). Briggs (1970), in his book Never In Anger, examined the society of Utku, a small group of Canadian Inuit. Among the Utku there are no situations or events in which anger is considered a justifiable or appropriate reaction. There is an Utku term which can be loosely translated as anger (Ningaq) but this really refers to aggressive tendencies. This word is seldom used in the first person, but most usually in reference to others. Briggs reports that, when provoked by events including the behaviour of others, a member of the Utku is more likely to experience amusement (Tiphi) or depression (Hujwjaq) than anger. This society, then, is surely exactly the kind of Utopia that Seneca was hoping for; however, as Averill notes, there are several qualifications:

The number of Utkus varies from about 20 to 35 individuals, and they are the sole inhabitants of an area of about 35,000 square miles. Considering the smallness of the group and the harshness of the environment, it is imperative that social conflict be kept at a minimum. Anything resembling anger, at least in its more aggressive aspects, is therefore discouraged; but so too is any deviation from established custom that might provoke anger. One might also ask when a provocation does occur, is amusement and/or depression a more appropriate response than anger? (1982, p. 340)

Was this article helpful?

0 0
Do Not Panic

Do Not Panic

This guide Don't Panic has tips and additional information on what you should do when you are experiencing an anxiety or panic attack. With so much going on in the world today with taking care of your family, working full time, dealing with office politics and other things, you could experience a serious meltdown. All of these things could at one point cause you to stress out and snap.

Get My Free Ebook


Post a comment