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The Varieties of Anger

By Lisa Feldman Barrett | The New York Times | November 12, 2016

Bitterness. Hostility. Rage. The varieties of anger are endless. Some are mild, such as grumpiness, and others are powerful, such as wrath. Different angers vary not only in their intensity but also in their purpose. It’s normal to feel exasperated with your screaming infant and scornful of a political opponent, but scorn toward your baby would be bizarre.

Anger is a large, diverse population of experiences and behaviors, as psychologists like myself who study emotion repeatedly discover. You can shout in anger, weep in anger, even smile in anger. You can throw a tantrum in anger with your heart pounding, or calmly plot your revenge. No single state of the face, body or brain defines anger. Variation is the norm.

The Russian language has two distinct concepts within what Americans call “anger” — one that’s directed at a person, called “serditsia,” and another that’s felt for more abstract reasons such as the political situation, known as “zlitsia.” The ancient Greeks distinguished quick bursts of temper from long-lasting wrath. German has three distinct angers, Mandarin has five and biblical Hebrew has seven.

In the past few weeks, many varieties of anger have been on vivid display. For starters, we now have an iconic angry man as the president-elect. Donald J. Trump is aggressive as he insists there’s something wrong with the country, and offensive when he’s provoked. He employs anger effectively to maintain his power and status. His anger is seen by his fans as strength and by his detractors as bombast.

We’ve also seen Hillary Clinton’s more restrained anger, which she has directed against the divisiveness she perceived during the campaign. To her proponents, Mrs. Clinton’s anger fueled her resolve to push back against Mr. Trump’s most egregious statements. To her detractors, her anger made her a shrew.

You, most likely, have also felt a wide range of angers throughout this election. Perhaps you’ve been incensed at the perceived elitism of the 1 percent who seem blind to their own privilege, arrogance and condescension. Perhaps you’ve felt outrage about the humiliation of women, minorities and immigrants. Perhaps you want to lash out against your idiot fellow citizens on the other side of our gaping political divide, or at your own candidate for committing bone-headed errors in judgment.

Other varieties of anger involve frustration and helplessness. If you believe you’ve been treated unfairly by the powers that be and left behind economically, you feel this anger. If you shudder in anticipation that eight years of progress will be rolled back, or that other people will decide the fate of the planet and your children will suffer as a consequence, you also feel this anger.

Anger can distance people from one another, producing two sides of a vitriolic debate or leading people to isolate themselves from the nastiness. If the election prompted you to shut off the car radio, stop reading Twitter or sit in silence with your gnawing thoughts, you’ve felt this anger.

But not all varieties of anger are divisive and destructive. Others are uplifting and constructive — an antidote to hopelessness. If you’re furious at the political situation, researchers have found, your anger may lead others to try to soothe you, strengthening your bonds with them. If you believe in a vision of America that has been demolished, the anger you share with other like-minded citizens can be empowering, scientists have discovered, and lead to collective action. This kind of anger can even create a community.

Buddhism teaches that anger is a form of ignorance, namely of other people’s points of view. If, in the midst of your fury, you can manage to see your opponents not as evil but as frustrated and trying to make a change, anger can actually cultivate empathy for the other side. In this sense, some angers are a form of wisdom.

Another constructive variety of anger can help in a contest, political or otherwise. Think about football players who intentionally cultivate anger before a game. They shout and jump and pump their fists in the air to get themselves in the right frame of mind for crushing the competition. Their aggression enhances their performance and tells their opponents to beware. That’s what happened in the 2016 campaign. Voters worked themselves up into righteous anger and took action.

There’s even a constructive anger that’s delivered through humor. If you’ve watched late-night TV as comedians skewer political figures that you loathe, you’ve felt this anger and its cathartic effects.

We are a divided country, but we are united by anger. Our individual explosions are signals that we care strongly about something — that we’re deeply invested — even if our angers are about different things. Some Americans are newly angry after the election. Others progressed from anger to delight when Mr. Trump prevailed. But if he acts contrary to their expectations, those joyful feelings might well transform into outrage once again.

Lisa Feldman Barrett, is a University Distinguished Professor at Northeastern University, and a member of the CLBB Scientific Faculty. 

Read the full article, originally published in The New York Times.