If you were asked to name an emotion most likely to cause harm or injury, we would be willing to bet that you would pick anger, or any one of its forms. Frustration, wrath, even road rage – they all have their roots in the emotion we refer to as anger. Anger is an emotion we feel in response to insult, injustice, offenses to oneself (the psychological term sometimes used is incidents or events that demean the self), to simply feeling unpleasant, discomforting sensations. When we are angered, we are motivated to retaliate, and, more generally, take action towards people or things external to ourselves. Ever lashed out in anger before? The person or object that you’ve vented your anger towards may not necessarily have been the trigger of your anger. Yet, feeling angry motivates this set of behaviours – to seek out something, someone – and perhaps anything or anyone as a target of your frustrations. In contrast with say, sadness, which causes us with withdraw, anger is considered an ‘approach- related’ affect, prompting us to direct our attention and frustrations outward .
For a while, it has been thought that anger is best managed when we vent our frustrations. You have probably heard, or maybe even seen an angry person take their frustrations out by hitting things, or yelling. Does venting help reduce our anger? Not so, at least according to one study by Brad Bushman. Bushman conducted an experiment where angry participants hit a punching bag, while thinking about someone whom they felt angry towards. He then compared this group other individuals who thought instead, of the punching bag exercise as a way to becoming physically fit. Both groups were then given the chance to administer a loud blast of noise (through a pair of headphones) to the person who angered them. The results? The group who ruminated, by thinking about the person they were angry towards, were the ones who administered the loudest noise blasts. They did so even after they punched the bag. If venting one’s frustrations was an effective way of cooling one’s tempers, they would not have administered the loudest noise blasts. The result showed that thinking about an individual who made them angry, and then punching a bag actually increased the participants’ anger. Results from Bushman’s study also showed that doing nothing was better than venting in reducing one’s anger. Venting does not help extinguish anger .
How about distraction? A series of studies by Cheryl Rusting and Susan Nolen-Hoeksema showed that rumination increases anger, while distraction had a minimal effect on helping reduce anger. Distracting did reduce anger in some of these studies, but in others, had little effect on an angry mood . What does work better, however, is reappraisal. Compared with suppressing anger, one study found that reappraising one’s anger – rethinking the cause of the anger, the intentions of the other party – were more effective in helping an individual manage the destructive properties of anger . It might even be useful to consider more elaborate explanations for why you are feeling angry. If someone has angered you by being inconsiderate, you might ask yourself if there really was any intent in that person’s actions or words. Is this person deliberately intent on making you angry? What other external factors or influences may have caused the individual to act of behave in that manner? Anger is an emotion that narrows our views and causes us to jump to over-simplistic conclusions about another’s intent. Rethinking your assumptions about another’s behaviours, that is, reappraising another’s actions, is one way of discouraging potentially dangerous acts triggered by this powerful emotion.