Is All Anger Bad? Debunking the Myths Surrounding the Emotion

June 12, 2018

By Deepan Guharajan, B.S.

In the popular Pixar Movie “Inside Out”, the emotion, Joy, says “[Anger] cares very deeply about things being fair.” This becomes apparent when Riley—the protagonist in the film and whose emotions are heavily involved in her decisions—has a difficult time moving to a new city. Anger is first to assume authority and advocates for her to run away! In this impatient and impulsive move, Anger is responsible for Riley stealing her mother’s credit card, lying to her parents, and running away from home. Although Riley eventually returns home when Joy and Sadness take control, it is clear that Anger was responsible for a majority of the bad decisions made in the film as he offers little constructive help.

There certainly is some truth behind these bad expressions of anger. For instance, research has linked anger with the potential for: (i) aggression and violence; (ii) interpersonal conflicts such as organizational disputes and domestic violence; (iii) impaired judgment, which increases the likelihood of risk-taking while decreasing one’s capacity to think analytically.

Wow, that’s a pretty convincing list of reasons to avoid getting angry! A question on your mind at this point may be: is there any good use to anger? To answer this, it is necessary to define the emotion. Although there are many models for studying affect, one that has gathered much empirical validity is the cognitive motivational theory (Frijda, Kuipers, & ter Schure, 1989). This model states that anger is comprised of two components: a cognitive appraisal and an action tendency. So for me to experience anger, I must first consciously consider an act of wrongdoing as being directed to me. This thought is then followed by a desire to correct that wrongdoing.

With this definition of anger, it may become clear to us that anger may have several beneficial uses. For example, we see the fruits of constructive anger when an employee believes her boss is exploitative because he doesn’t pay overtime (cognitive appraisal) and then demands compensation (action tendency). Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. believing the government was rejecting the rights of the African-American people (cognitive appraisal), which inspired him to take action against the government through sit-ins, peaceful demonstrations, and passive resistance (action tendency).

Although research suggests that there are numerous positive uses of anger, there is still a stigma against it in the general population. This stigma surrounding anger often presents a challenge for emotion researchers — such as Dr. Ephrem Fernandez, a clinical psychologist at the University of Texas at San Antonio—to acquire data, as research participants from community samples may be hesitant to admit to anger in self-report surveys for fear of being perceived as socially undesirable. Participants may be inclined to under-report anger, which lead to biased and inaccurate levels of the emotion, especially when compared to forensic settings (e.g., prisons, juvenile detention centers, etc) making the different anger levels look very distant. Clearly, it is of critical importance to reduce the stigmas surrounding anger in lay circles: if researchers are able to do this—perhaps by highlighting the adaptive utility of it—greater precision and detail will be achieved in the scientific study of anger.

Interested in the psychological approaches to emotion research? Check out the Emotion and Sensation Research Group for more information!

Author Bio: Deepan is an international student from Malaysia, and has been studying in the United States for the last 5 years. His goal is to become a clinical psychologist and work in a hospital, helping people by assessing cognitive functioning post injury and to develop tailored cognitive rehabilitation treatments for them. He chose UTSA because of its rigorous program that pushes quantitative and statistical understanding. Additionally, his adviser, Dr. Ephrem Fernandez, is carrying out compelling research on accurately assessing anger through self-report. Fun fact: Deepan enjoys martial arts and has a black belt in Taek Won Do!

Topics: Psychology

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