Anger is a negative feeling state that is typically associated with hostile thoughts, physiological arousal, and maladaptive behaviors.

What is anger and how does it differ from aggression?

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% 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.

What are some of the positive aspects of anger?

Many of the longer-term outcomes of anger are negative. Yet, anger is part of our biological history. It is part of the fight-or-flight reaction. It had survival value in the past and it has some positives in the present. Many of these, however, are short-term benefits as few of us like to spend time with angry people.

Anger can be an appropriate response to injustice. No doubt, anger played a useful part in social movements for equality for blacks, the elderly and women, among others. Anger may also lead to better outcomes in business negotiations as well as an increased motivation to right the wrongs we see in the world.

The positives include its alerting function. Anger tells others it is important to listen to us—that we feel agitated and it is wise to be alert to our words and actions. It may also lead to compliance by others. Strongly asserting that we were first in line at a store counter may lead to better service. Also, in the short term, children and others may be more likely to comply with our requests when we are angry. “Don’t go in the street without holding mommy’s hand!” when said angrily to a small child, can be lifesaving.   

Anger sometimes just feels good and righteous. We may feel angry when watching a movie or a play where a character suffers inappropriately. Then, when good triumphs over evil, anger is replaced with a feeling of satisfaction. Playwrights have known about this for eons. In a similar vein, anger provides a certain zest for life. Can you imagine a world with no anger? The healthier, milder levels of irritation, and annoyance add spice to daily existence and we all seem to enjoy that.

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