Everyone knows what it feels like to be angry. Yet the causes, effects and ways to control anger are not particularly well understood.
Howard Kassinove, PhD, ABPP, is professor of psychology at Hofstra University and director of the university’s Institute for the Study and Treatment of Anger and Aggression. The following Q & A was produced by the American Psychological Association (APA).
7 Questions About Anger: How To Recognize and Deal With a Common Emotion
1. APA:What is anger and how does it differ from aggression?
Dr. Kassinove: Anger is a negative feeling state that is typically associated with hostile thoughts, physiological arousal and maladaptive behaviors. It usually develops in response to the unwanted actions of another person who is perceived to be disrespectful, demeaning, threatening or neglectful. Anger involves certain styles of thinking such as, “My boss criticized me in front of my colleagues. Now, I’m fuming. He shouldn’t be so disrespectful!” or “That woman in front of me is driving so slowly. This is exasperating. She shouldn’t be allowed to drive on the freeway!” Anger energizes us to retaliate. Our data indicate that about 25 percent of anger incidents involve thoughts of revenge such as, “I’m going to spread rumors about my boss to get even,” or “I’d like to just bump her car to put her in her place.” Interestingly, anger usually emerges from interactions with people we like or love, such as children, spouses and close friends.
Angry thoughts may be accompanied by muscle tension, headaches or an increased heart rate. In addition, the verbal and physical expressions of anger may serve as a warning to others about our displeasure. The verbal expressions include yelling, arguing, cursing and sarcasm. However, anger can also be expressed physically by raising a clenched fist, throwing a book on the floor, breaking a pencil or hitting a wall. Sometimes, anger is not expressed externally but remains as internal rumination.
Aggression, in contrast, refers to intentional behavior that aims to harm another person. Often, it reflects a desire for dominance and control. In the cases I see in my clinical and research work, weapons are often involved. Aggression can be shown by punching, shoving, hitting or even maiming another person, and it can occur in marital violence, child or elder abuse, bullying or gang and criminal activities.
Since anger is typically expressed only through loud verbalizations, it is the cases of aggression that wind up in the criminal justice system. Our research shows that about 90 percent of aggressive incidents are preceded by anger. However, only 10 percent of anger experiences are actually followed by aggression. People often want to act aggressively when angry but, fortunately, most do not actually take aggressive actions. Also, there is sometimes an impulse to engage in problem solving behaviors when angry.
Yet, anger is an important problem in its own right with negative consequences in many aspects of life such as marriages, the workplace, parent-child interactions and driving behavior. Anger is associated with interpersonal conflicts, negative evaluations by others, erratic driving, property destruction, occupational maladjustment, inappropriate risk taking, accidents, substance abuse and so-called crimes of passion.
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