My son Henry commented to me that anger in our society is reaching a crescendo. It has moved from the Beltway and national politics and infests every shopping mall, roadway, school, and home in America. A few days ago, I asked a new arrival to our town if she thought Henry’s observation was correct. She said no, as far as West Texas is concerned. But the place she and her husband left? No question. It’s true.
I have been living a stress-free life out here on the frontier so long, I have completely lost touch with this emotion. It is as alien to me as an alien. So I went out on the Internet and found what I consider to be one of the best articles on the pervasive anger in our society. It was published years ago, but it’s as relevant today as ever.
Is Our Society Getting Increasingly Angry?
Am I the only one who finds it ironic that in an age of “positive psychology,” anger has become the dominant socially-expressed emotion? Many politicians have given up even the façade of dignified debate. They push, shove, yell, and scream at the least provocation. In the past, attack ads were a tactic reserved for the most dire situations. But now the attack ad has become the norm, rolled out even before names are on the ballots. The attacks aren’t limited to political views, either. Anything and anyone in a politician’s life is fair game. Sometimes the attacks occur in “off the record” comments or inadvertently show up in recorded voice mail messages. Even people not running for office are on the attack, as when Jimmy Carter recently criticized Senator Edward Kennedy’s strategies to pass health care legislation.
Anger isn’t limited to the political arena, though. We hear about the outbursts of a frustrated flight attendant, the road rage of weary drivers, and the rudeness of almost everyone taking part in commercial situations including customers and customer service agents.
There’s no lack of theories about the origins of a society with a permanent case of the terrible two’s.
It’s the bad economy, the lack of stability in the home, the failure of teachers to instill manners in young children, the anonymity of the internet, the intrusiveness of government, or maybe the chemicals in our food. Brain researchers talk about amygdalas (emotion-controlling structures in the brain) that are too large, or amygdalas that are too small, or pre-frontal cortexes (planning centers in the brain) that aren’t sufficiently developed. Social psychologists point to the role of modeling and vicarious reinforcement in triggering aggressive behavior. Personality psychologists attribute aggressive outbursts to weak superegos. Everyone’s got a theory but no one has a handle on what’s really going on.
Now’s here’s the part where you think-ok-she’s got the answers. She’ll say what the ultimate, definite, psychological explanation is for the cause of anger. Don’t get mad, because I don’t have the answers. But the theories I’ve just rattled off aren’t bad starts at coming up with an explanation, particularly those that emphasize social factors. Amygdalas aside, there does seem to be some ungluing of the social order that we are all witnessing. Reality TV, the 24-hour news cycle, the increasing polarization of the political parties, and the frustration of dealing with two wars and a shrinking global economy all seem to have contributed to our social malaise. I also think there are some smaller and more subtle ways that we’ve lost some of our manners.
For example, think about how some TV shows depict people being helped by some of our most respected professionals-physicians, nurses, lawyers, and police officers. If a patient on Grey’s Anatomy, for example, doesn’t like the diagnosis he’s received, he curses at the physician. In one particularly egregious example, a disgruntled widower shoots everyone he can in the hospital where his wife lost her life. True, it was a season finale and therefore given to hyperbole. But on an ordinary episode almost everyone speaks to everyone else as if they were sworn enemies.
Observation of aggressive behavior, particularly when that behavior doesn’t lead to negative consequences, could be more important than we realize in provoking angry outbursts. Studies of human behavior involve many potentially confounding factors, which is why many researchers in this area have traditionally studied nonhuman animals. One recent study conducted at Loyola University tested the fascinating notion that brain chemistry and passive observation of aggressive behavior together produce heightened aggressive tendencies in lab rats. The rats who watched aggressive behavior in other rats responded by developing more neural receptivity in their amygdalas than rats who did not observe aggression. So just by watching their, shall we say, rodent colleagues, bash each other, the observers developed greater potential to experience aggression themselves.
Ironically, it was the Tom and Jerry style of violent TV cartoons of the 1950s that led social psychologists to investigate the role of modeling in childhood aggression. Arguments made in human studies, that more violent kids watch more violent shows, were hauled out to counter the conclusion that aggression breeds aggression. This is one reason the Loyola study, and others like it that experimentally manipulate exposure to aggression in lab animals, are particularly valuable.
We might wonder, well, where did the aggression that gets modeled start from? Presumably, aggression and anger have always been around. There’s never going to be a complete end to violence. The issue is what are the consequences are of aggressive behavior? If there are no obvious costs, the behavior will continue and eventually escalate.
If the diagnosis is that there’s too much rage, violence, and unbridled aggression perpetrated in the media, what’s the cure? It’s undoubtedly too late to stop the tide; although, we might hope that Miss Manners will make a much needed return. Instead, it’s up to us to recognize when we are being inappropriate and put the curbs on our own aggression. It’s the old “do unto others…” at work.
Here are ways that you can contribute to a kinder, gentler world:
1. The next time a stranger makes you angry, smile at the person. Not only will this disarm the offender, who probably doesn’t expect this, but the stop in the action can put some perspective on the situation.
2. Take a chill pill. The old remedy of counting to 10 isn’t such a bad idea. Stop, take a few deep breaths, and regain your composure.
3. Try to understand where your own anger is coming from. Do you get unreasonably mad at people with very little instigation? Perhaps someone treated you badly when you were younger or you felt deprived and thus easily fall prey to real or imagined hurt. You can learn to control your hostility through anger management.
4. Refuse to pay attention to aggressive acts. Resist the temptation to contribute to the viral spread of angry outbursts in social media. If a politician screamed and no tweets were sent, would that politician continue to scream?
5. Take the other person’s perspective. If someone annoys you because that person is giving you disappointing information, don’t assume the person wants to make you feel bad. Customer service agents, for the most part, don’t want to charge you extra, take away things you want, or cause you to wait for hours in line. Imagine that you had this job, and cut the person some slack. You may even get better service.
Maybe, by controlling our own rage, we can cure the world, one polite act at a time.
Susan Krauss Whitbourne PhD, is currently a professor of psychology at the University of Massachusetts Amherst, the author of over 160 refereed articles and book chapters, and 16 books including The Search for Fulfillment (January 2010, Ballantine Books). She also writes for the Huffington Post’s “Post 50″ blog and is a frequent commentator on local, national, and international media outlets including Dateline, Money Magazine, USA Today, and Time.com. This article first appeared in Fulfillment at Any Age.
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