Understanding Anger: Theories and Facts

Understanding Anger: Theories and Facts

"Games" for putting down others

Eric Berne (1964), founder of Transactional Analysis (TA), wrote a very popular book, Games People Play. One kind of game is to put-down others, which certainly is aggressive. The payoffs of such games are building one’s ego, denying responsibility for one’s problems, reaffirming one’s opinion that other people are "not OK," and expressing some of one’s anger. Some of these put-down games involve blaming others ("If it weren’t for you"), demeaning others ("I know your blemish," "Rapo–men only want sex," "Yes, but you’re wrong"), and revenge ("Now I’ve got you, you SOB"). See chapter 9.

According to TA, it is the "child" part of us that enjoys playing these hurtful games, which are carried out unconsciously. The rational "adult" part of us may never become aware of the destructive, hostile games being played by the "child" part. But if the "adult" part can gain some insight, it could stop the games. If insight happened, however, there would surely be an internal struggle between the "adult" and the "child," resulting in stress and irritability. Let’s suppose your "child" part likes to flirt, partly because the flirting (if you are a woman) reaffirms your belief that men are unfaithful animals or (if you are a man) that women are suckers for a smooth "line;" both are hostile put-down games. If your logical "adult" realizes your "child’s" motives and stops the "child" from playing these games, the "child" is likely to resent losing some of its fun. But at least the aggression-generating thoughts and experiences of the game are eliminated.

Psychological put-downs

Games are unconscious but we may consciously put-down or degrade or insult another person by "mind reading" or "psychologizing," i.e. attempting to analyze and explain their behavior. First of all, most people resent someone else (unless it’s their therapist) telling them what they really think or feel and what their unconscious motives really are. Secondly, many of these psychological speculations are negative (saintly motives don’t need to be repressed). Alan Gurman and David Rice, well known marital therapists, provide many examples:


  • Psychological explanations: "He is still a baby and wants to be cared for." "She needs attention all the time, she flirts with everyone." "He is afraid I’ll be more successful than he is, that’s why he wants me to stay home." "You’re just trying to make me mad so you’ll have an excuse to go drinking."


  • Psychological name-calling: "You’re paranoid." "You’re a latent homo." "You’re a hypochondriac–it’s all in your head."


  • Accusations about the other person’s ability or desire to change: "You’re sick, you must want to be unhappy." "You don’t care about me, you don’t want to change." "You just don’t care how I feel."


  • Accusations of poor insight: "I have more and more to do at work, why can’t you understand that and stop bitching?" "Can’t you see I’m upset and want to be left alone." "You just don’t get it, do ya?"


  • Blaming permanent characteristics (or human nature) in the other person: "He has a terrible temper." "She is super sensitive." "All women are scatterbrained." "Men are so insensitive." "Boy, are you stupid!"

Psychological concepts are often misused. These aggressive remarks are likely to hurt others and harm relationships. The attitude underlying such statements is not acceptance, tolerance, understanding and unconditional positive regard. It is anger and hostility. One of the major tasks of a student of psychology is to, first, recognize these resentments and pet peeves, then learn to understand the causes of the resented behaviors. To truly understand is to forgive.

The relationship between anger and other emotions–anxiety, guilt, depression, dependency, and sex.

There are very complex interactions between anger and several other emotions. Examples: Most of us feel anxious or scared when we get angry. We know there are risks involved; we might lose control and others might retaliate. Also, whether we are angry or not, it is scary when someone becomes angry at us. Yet, in some situations we would never express ourselves unless we got angry, so aggression can also help us overcome fear. So, we actually need to be intolerant of injustice.

Hostility and abuse can cause painful guilt; the pain of being an abuser or abused can cause more anger; two aggressive people are likely to form a "vicious circle." We have already seen that feeling put-down may cause us to aggress to inflate our ego.

It is a classical assumption in psychiatry that a weak, submissive, dependent person is resentful of this situation (chapter 8). How many subservient wives and selfless mothers have experienced resentment when the women’s movement increased their awareness? Millions. However, the "super nice" giver, who often feels guilty for not giving enough, hardly has time to recognize his/her resentment for not getting enough appreciation or attention.

Another classical substitution of one feeling for another is when a person cries, a sign usually of sadness, instead of showing anger. My experience in counseling is that when a woman cries, she is really mad about 75% of the time. Check this out.

Anger turned inward on the self is another classical dynamic explaining depression (chapter 6). Some psychologists have suggested the reverse, namely, that the pain of depression causes anger. All these connections are likely.

There are some interesting, often tragic, relationships between sexual feelings and aggression: bondage, sadism, rape, masochism, and the use of sexual swear words when angry. Impotence and frigidity commonly reflect anger. Pornography and prostitution are usually for men’s pleasure and profit, while these activities degrade and abuse women. It has been shown, for instance, that males are more aggressive towards females than males after watching an erotic film. The relationship between erotica and aggression is complex, however. Mildly sexual pictures, like in Playboy, or in movies that are seen as pleasing seem to distract us and reduce our aggression. Disgusting or crude pornography increases our aggression (Byrne & Kelley, 1981).

Yet, there are some couples who report their best sex is after getting angry. Bry (1976) suggests that many sexual activities are aggressive–"love bites," hickeys, scratching, and vigorous intercourse. She recommends, among other things, that married couples try going to bed to wipe out their anger; it may work for some people but not everyone.

Lastly, it is commonly believed by therapists that one emotion can hide or replace another. Examples: Transactional Analysis describes a game called "Uproar," in which one person starts an argument to avoid intimacy or dependency or sex. Likewise, a partner, who expects to be rejected, may fight and dump the other person first. A teenager and his/her opposite sexed parent may deny the dependency, closeness and/or sexuality between them by fighting. It may also work in the opposite direction: the child would rather be fighting with a parent than be neglected. In some relationships, complaining or arguing becomes a pastime, a way of getting attention from the partner who otherwise might take you for granted.

Gender differences; should women show more anger or men less?

Boys have far more temper tantrums than girls–and their tantrums last longer. Boys and men, in general, recover from an irritating experience more slowly than females, partly because they have stronger physiological reactions to frustration than women. It is the action that differentiates males from females, i.e. men and women apparently feel angry about the same things and to the same degree (Averill, 1983). However, beginning at age 3 or 4, boys are more aggressive than girls. Boys are also aggressed against and punished more than girls. For example, women who cut into line receive less hassle than men. Men kill and are killed four or five times more frequently than women. Boys, but not girls, are encouraged to be physically aggressive. About 70% of parents say it is good for a boy to have a few fights as he grows up. How many parents think that about their daughters?

As culturally prescribed sex roles fade in our culture, however, the gender differences in aggressiveness may decline. But will men become less aggressive or women more aggressive or both? The crime rate for women is increasing much more rapidly than for men. Also, experimental studies of punishment show women administering just as much electric shock to victims as men do (Byrne & Kelley, 1981). Women seem to have a different reaction than men to being aggressive. Apparently, boys and men to expect acting aggressive to pay off, girls and women don’t. Women experience more anxiety and guilt after aggressing than men do; they also are more empathic with the victim afterwards.

Some studies show that about 50% of college students–both males and females–report having been physically aggressive to some extent (from throwing something to beating up on someone). Yet, college males are far more likely than females to get into a fight in the local bars. And, when asked about going to war against Iraq in Kuwait, 48% of men favored war in late 1990 but only 22% of women did. We will discuss violence with intimates (spouses and children) soon.

It is generally believed that anger is power. Thus, women are at a disadvantage because they are uncomfortable showing their anger. Indeed, their anger is more disapproved then men’s anger. That makes displaying your anger, if you are a woman, more dangerous. But, showing weakness is dangerous too. Certainly, if a female manager or leader is seen crying and emotionally disabled in a situation that might be handled aggressively by a strong male, she will lose prestige in the eyes of many people. Therefore, some people have begun to encourage women to show their anger and utilize it skillfully as a tool for getting important changes made. Here are some guidelines for using anger constructively: (1) Don’t react impulsively, be sure your anger is justified and have clearly in mind exactly what needs to be changed. (2) Decide in advance how far you will go, e.g. can you and will you fire someone over this issue if it isn’t worked out? Are you willing to quit over this issue? Will you demand a hearing or press charges? (3) When ready, state specifically and firmly what you want changed. Don’t accuse or blame others. Show anger and strong determination but don’t get overly emotional. (4) Expect to get some flack and opposition. (5) Sit down with others involved and work out detailed plans for making the changes needed. Note: this is similar to "I" statements (method #4 in chapter 13) but in a work setting there is more emphasis on demanding reasonable changes.

Valentis & Devane (1993) discuss anger that uniquely characterizes women and suggest ways of utilizing the energy from anger in positive ways.

Social-cultural attitudes enhance aggression

This analysis of cultural factors is taken primarily from Scherer, Abeles, and Fischer (1975). The rate of homicide in the US is four to eight times greater than in most European countries or in Japan. Obviously, that can’t be due to inherited factors and it seems unlikely that there are that many more frustrations in the U.S. There must be something about our society that makes us more prone to violence. First of all, there is a high value placed on success which may lead to more frustration. Secondly, if you can’t succeed by legitimate means, you might consider illegal, more violent means. Thus, lower socioeconomic classes are more prone to crime. Thirdly, there are subcultures within our country, such as gangs, crime families, and macho groups, that encourage violence.

Fourthly, several other factors within certain subcultures create stress: (1) having strong conflicts between values, such as believing in white or male superiority and equal opportunities, (2) feeling unjustly treated and deprived, (3) experiencing economic, racial, sexual, or other prejudices, and (4) believing the "establishment" (e.g. police or courts) is handling some local situation badly. In summary, if you are poor, discriminated against, stressed, oppressed, within a subculture of violence, and have little hope of improving your situation, your chances of being angry and aggressive go up.

Resentment has a psychological payoff

Anger is destructive and it drags us down. Yet, we may, at times, become obsessed with misery-causing resentment in order to avoid some even more horrible misery. What could that payoff be? Theodore Dalrymple (1995) says that our resentment of others and of past events helps us deny our own responsibility for our failings and unhappiness. If we think of ourselves as the innocent victim of circumstances, we are not bad people or a failure, indeed, we deserve sympathy and help. For some people, our parents are seen as the cause of our problems and our failures (accurately in some cases, falsely in others). Such people obsess over and over again that a critical parent destroyed their self-esteem or an alcoholic parent made them totally ashamed or a busy parent made them feel worthless… Poor parents are made responsible for our lives and we are relieved of any responsibility. That’s a big payoff.

If we portray ourselves as mistreated by a cruel world, we appear to be a righteous person, totally blameless, and it seems unnecessary for us to change or do anything about it. We become a helpless victim, which gives us some status. As Dalrymple points out, however, if we, as a victim, actually took action and overcame or corrected the unfair situation, it would suggest that perhaps we never needed to be a victim, that we could have helped ourselves much earlier than we did. So, we often resist trying to change our miserable situation in any way. Who wants to know that we have messed up our own lives? Criminals usually have tales of a wretched childhood and bad influences which account for their stealing, attacking people, and killing others. Our resentment of our past glosses over our possible failures in self-direction.

How we justify aggression

One reason for our own aggression is that we excuse it or rationalize it. We may even get an ego boost from it–being a tough, fearless, macho man. How can guilt about our aggression be reduced? See chapter 3 for more discussion of the excuses we use when we are inconsiderate of others. Briefly, Bandura (1973) describes several ways that we, as aggressors, avoid blaming ourselves:


  1. Emphasize the goodness of our cause. Our violence is often thought of as necessary to stop an evil force.

    When you think of the long and gloomy history of man, you will find more hideous crimes have been committed in the name of obedience (to a national or religious cause) than in the name of rebellion.
    -C. P. Snow


  2. "I’m just following orders." This is said by soldiers. Hitler’s SS Troops said it. It was said by subjects in Milgram’s study of obedience (see chapter 8).


  3. "I just went along with the crowd ." Individual persons in a rioting crowd or a lynch mob feel little responsibility.


  4. Degrading the victims. Jews were seen as inferior and despicable in Hitler’s Germany. The victim is portrayed as evil, stupid, animalistic, or greedy, and deserving to die.


  5. Blaming the victim (see Ryan, 1976). This is a situation where the victim–the raped, robbed, insulted person–is blamed for the incident, e.g. "she was asking for it dressed like that." Example: In My-Lai, Vietnam, American soldiers thought the villagers had cooperated with the enemy; children in the village sometimes betrayed or were violent towards our soldiers; "C" company had just lost 20% of its men in a minefield outside the village. All Vietnamese were feared, hated, called "gooks," and were hard to tell from enemy soldiers. One day, Americans herded 400 villagers–mostly women, children, and babies–into a ditch and shot them. It seemed to some of the soldiers as though the villagers deserved to be shot. Similar events have happened many, many times throughout human history.


  6. Becoming accustomed to violence. In families, a raised voice becomes a verbal attack which escalates to a raised hand which leads to a shove, then a slap, and finally increasingly severe beatings. Likewise, soldiers are gradually trained to kill: first they see war movies and are told why they must fight, then there are many training exercises where killing is simulated, and finally they hear horror stories about the enemy. The more mutilated bodies one sees, the easier it is to kill. As one soldier said, "If you see their villages bombed and shelled every night, pretty soon the people just don’t seem worth very much."


  7. Denying the harm done by our aggression. "They are probably covered by insurance." "I just slapped her around a little." In war, we forget the life-long pain suffered by the loved-ones of the deceased; we forget the loss of a 18-year-old creative mind or a loving heart.

Read the pacifists’ reasons for opposing war and violence under all conditions (Nagler, 1982). See the movie Gandhi.

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