A Completely New Kind of Society
Tom Stoppard | On Anger | Factoids | Elsewhere
Quote of the Moment
Left to themselves people are noble, generous, uncorrupted, they’d create a completely new kind of society if only people weren’t so blind, stupid and selfish.
| Tom Stoppard, The Coast of Utopia: Salvage
Anger — one of the densest forms of communication — can lead to positive outcomes.
James Averill is a psychology professor at UMass Amherst (my alma mater) who was interested in anger. If anger is a negative vestige of human savagery, why haven’t haven’t we evolved away from its pernicious evil? Averill figured that if anger was in all of us, everywhere, then it must have some purpose. So he undertook a groundbreaking study in 1977, asking residents of Greenfield Massachusetts all about anger.
The results startled him [emphasis mine]:
Averill’s expectations were modest. He assumed that most Greenfield residents would say they only infrequently lost their temper. He expected respondents to confess that they were embarrassed afterward, and that, in retrospect, their paroxysms had only made things worse. In fact, he figured most people would toss the questionnaire in the trash.
Replies soon began flooding his mailbox, so many that Averill had trouble reading them all. “It was the best-performing survey I’ve ever conducted,” he told me. “Some people even attached thank-you notes. They were so pleased to talk about being angry.”
People were eager to talk about their daily indignations, in part because they felt angry so frequently. “Most people report becoming mildly to moderately angry anywhere from several times a day to several times a week,” Averill later wrote, summing up his research in American Psychologist.
Most surprising of all, these angry episodes typically took the form of short and restrained conversations. They rarely became blowout fights. And contrary to Averill’s hypothesis, they didn’t make bad situations worse. Instead, they tended to make bad situations much, much better. They resolved, rather than exacerbated, tensions.
In the vast majority of cases, expressing anger resulted in all parties becoming more willing to listen, more inclined to speak honestly, more accommodating of each other’s complaints. People reported that they tended to be much happier after yelling at an offending party. They felt relieved, more optimistic about the future, more energized. “The ratio of beneficial to harmful consequences was about 3 to 1 for angry persons,” Averill wrote. Even the targets of those outbursts agreed that the shouting and recriminations had helped. They served as signals for the wrongdoers to listen more carefully and change their ways. More than two-thirds of the recipients of anger “said they came to realize their own faults,” Averill wrote. Their “relationship with the angry person was reportedly strengthened more often than it was weakened, and the targets more often gained rather than lost respect for the angry person.”
Anger, Averill concluded, is one of the densest forms of communication. It conveys more information, more quickly, than almost any other type of emotion. And it does an excellent job of forcing us to listen to and confront problems we might otherwise avoid.
Subsequent studies have found other benefits as well. We’re more likely to perceive people who express anger as competent, powerful, and the kinds of leaders who will overcome challenges. Anger motivates us to undertake difficult tasks. We’re often more creative when we’re angry, because our outrage helps us see solutions we’ve overlooked. “When we look at the brains of people who are expressing anger, they look very similar to people who are experiencing happiness,” says Dacher Keltner, the director of the Berkeley Social Interaction Lab. “When we become angry, we feel like we’re taking control, like we’re getting power over something.” Watching angry people—as viewers of reality television know—is highly entertaining, so expressing anger is a surefire method for capturing the attention of an otherwise indifferent crowd.
Duhigg goes on to make the case that the incessant background radiation of anger has been creeping up here in America, pulling in observations about the belief of his core that Trump’s acceptance of anger is noble, Kavanaugh’s congressional hearings that involved simmering hatred coming to the surface like a caldera’s magma overflowing, and the 70 percent of Americans who were deeply angry at the other political party’s presidential nominee in the 2016 elections.
Then he turns his attention to the anger merchants: debt collection agencies who play mad to make people angry and then offer catharsis through reconciliation, cable TV that traffics in outrage with 100 percent of opinion TV episodes and 98.8 percent of talk radio containing outrage, and the political actors, like Trump and his ilk, growing tribes of angry voters who want to kill their opponents.
Then the pipe bombs get mailed.
[formerly published in 2019 at stoweboyd.com.]
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