Thursday, December 16, 2010

The Right Kind of Anger

There is nothing intrinsically wrong with feeling angry. Often considered a negative emotion, anger has its uses and purposes. I would say the same of another negative emotion: fear.

I would not want to wager on the long term survival of people who know neither anger nor fear.

You mobilize anger to defend yourself. Your fear tells you when you are in danger.

If you refuse to defend yourself and do not know when you are in danger, then you are not likely to have a very long and happy life.

Confusing these emotions, as in, misreading their messages, is a bad thing. If you are afraid when you should be angry, you will be consigning yourself to second-rate status. And if you are angry when you should be afraid, you will not survive for very long.

Feeling an emotion is one thing. Expressing it is quite another. And there are many ways to express an emotion. You can express it appropriately and temperately or you can go to one of the extremes: not expressing it at all or overdoing the expression.

There is nothing intrinsically wrong with anger, but throwing a tantrum against a waiter is the wrong way to express your anger, at the wrong time, in the wrong place, to the wrong person, under the wrong circumstances.

If your unbridled rage mostly draws attention to your weak character, then you have accomplished nothing. You might feel that you have purged a negative emotion, but later, when sanity prevails and you reflect on what you have done, you will discover that you have embarrassed yourself in public. You will not feel very good about it.

There are right and wrong ways to express anger. Or better,  there are effective and ineffective ways to express it.

Recently, American citizens who were angry about government policy demonstrated in public, attended town hall meetings, and eventually expressed their anger by voting in a democratic election.

Theirs was not a temper tantrum or an expression of uncontrollable rage.

Expressing anger the right way will draw attention to the problem, not to yourself.

Thanks to Tea Party anger, the nation is now more clearly focused on fiscal responsibility. Those who accused the Tea Party of emotional intemperance failed to persuade, so the issues that provoked the Tea Party have taken center stage.

Most often, we feel anger when people offend us, insult us, or disregard our feelings. Of course, we do not always know that we have been “dissed” so we rely on anger to alert us to social realities that we might have ignored.

Feeling anger and expressing anger are two fundamentally different things. When you are angry with someone who insults you, you have a number of different ways to express it.

If the person is inconsequential you can ignore the slight. If the person is consequential, you can confront the person, parry the insult with wit, counterattack, or make an angry facial expression.

If you are trying to avoid a duel-- and not share the fate of Alexander Hamilton-- you want to effect a conciliation. If someone has wronged you, you want them to apologize and to take it back.

The right expression of anger will afford the other person a chance to repent and change his ways. The wrong one will make you look weak, as though you cannot control your emotions, and thus, deserve the insult.

But what about fear. In a way, fear is to physical danger what anger is to moral danger.

It’s normal to be afraid of an elephant on a rampage. There is little most of us can do to stop it, and it does represent a danger to our physical being.

It is not normal, when faced with such an occurrence, to have no fear at all. Failing to recognize danger is not an adaptive response. In some circumstances, it is good to hide your fear, to pretend to be dead or hurt.

But it is not normal to be so afraid that you fail to take whatever actions are needed to protect yourself.

How, then, should you express fear? If you look like you are afraid of your shadow, even when you are not facing physical danger, then you will be admitting to physical or psychological weakness. Overly fearful signifies powerless.

The best expressions of fear involve taking action; not expressing your feelings for the sake of expressing your feelings.

When the therapy culture talks about the need to express emotion-- to which I have taken severe exception-- it does not seem to be talking about fear. We certainly do not want people running around making a point of expressing how afraid they are.

To complicate these issues, I want to introduce some new research about how we are influenced by other people’s emotions. How do we respond to people when we see anger on their faces or when we see fear on their faces?

Time Magazine has just reported on research performed by psychologists in Utrecht, The Netherlands. Link here.

In the study subjects saw images of a series of objects on a computer screen. In one corner of the screen there was also a picture of either an angry face or a fearful face.

As each object was flashed, the subjects were asked whether or not they wanted it, and how badly they wanted it.

The study associated object with emotion, but with someone else’s emotion. And it explicitly addressed one’s wish to acquire objects.

The researchers seem to believe that their results also apply to leadership, but that is not entirely explicit in the study.

If the terms involved being motivated to follow someone’s lead, then we would understand that you are more likely to follow the lead of a person who appears to be angry than to follow the lead of someone who is afraid.

At the same time, we differentiate between a manager who is angry at you and a manager who is angry at circumstances and determined to do better next time.

As for the study itself, Time Magazine reports: “The results showed that respondents tended not to want the objects associated with fearful faces, an expected outcome given the negative nature of this emotion. As for the people subjected to flashes of angry faces, however, they not only tended to want the objects more, but they also squeezed the handgrips harder, suggesting that they were willing to exert effort to acquire the objects.”

If you see an angry face you are more likely to believe that the object associated with that person has value. If you see a fearful face you are more likely not to want the object associated with it.

Why should this be so? The researchers believe that anger looks a lot like determination, and that we respond more positively to leaders who look like they are determined to get things done. It might also mean that we prefer to associate with people who project strength, not weakness.

One might also imagine that an angry face feels threatening, and that a fearful face does not. A person who feels threatened might be more likely to do what this face seems to want it to do.

Or else, an angry face might make you feel as though you had someone offended the person, and therefore, that you owed him an apology. Might that not also provoke a wish to purchase an object from him?

Then again, if you were to go into a store and the salesperson at the shirt counter looked at you angrily, I would imagine that you would not want to stay very long in that person’s presence.

If the salesperson was fully focused on you, your purchase, your questions, in the sense of being more determined to make the sale, then you would probably be more likely to buy something.

But, if the person looked afraid, would you feel less impelled to purchase something, would you feel that you had certainly not done anything to provoke the fear, or would you feel sorry for the person and think that you should purchase something?

1 comment:

Chuck Pelto said...

TO: Dr. Schneiderman
RE: Looking Back on It....

....August 2009, that is, and the public forums on Obamacare, I recall an angry crowd listening to a stacked—in favor—panel.

One character on the panel told an outright lie in favor of Obamacare. Someone 'threw a tantrum', rather short on by standing up and in anger shouting, "That's a lie. You treated my mother-in-law for cancer and she had to pay for a medication you prescribed because Medicare wouldn't pay a dime for it."

The next day, the reporter, who favored Obamacare wrote in inaccurate story about the forum. Calling the attendees the most unruly crowd she'd ever seen.

The fact of the matter is that when you see an outrage being perpetrated, honest people tend to get 'angry' and may even have a 'tantrum'.

From my experience in the military, we refer to every situational response as 'depends on the situation'. All the way up to the use of deadly force. And open objection to lies is perfectly 'legal'. Especially when those lies are going to impact on everyone you know and love.

It's when something petty is blown out of all proportion that there is the 'embarrassment' you referred to earlier. However, as with that local reporter, people can twist a report to say things that didn't REALLY happen, via innuendo, e.g., 'unruly' or 'tantrum'.


[Don't make me angry. You won't like me when I'm angry. -- Bruce Banner, a.k.a., the Hulk]