Chronic anger – and why the heart grows brutal from the fare

Over the last year, it seems as if we in Ireland are growing collectively angrier on a daily basis. There is no need to recite the litany of economic, banking, political, child abuse and other issues that have provoked that anger.  Rather I want to focus on the effects of anger on individuals and on a society and the relationship between anger and accountability.

At an individual level, the psychology of anger and its effects are well understood.  The good part is that anger energises us to seek justice and accountability, to right the wrong and restore the situation, which existed prior to the offense. Getting angry gives us a temporary feeling of control and competence – we are going to do something about this – accompanied by an increasing sense of certainty that we know exactly what happened and why it happened. Thus buoyed, we become supremely confident that whatever we are doing to do to right the wrong or punish the perpetrator is the correct course of action and optimistic about our chances of success. That is why anger is also associated with many strong positive feelings. In fact, the biological and psychological 'signature' of anger is quite like happiness. As Aristotle long ago pointed out, angry people get pleasure from fantasizing about the act of vengeance.

So far, so good – as long as anger remains at a relatively low intensity, a kind of controlled short-term indignation. But when anger becomes intense or chronic it is not good, either for the individual or for a society.  Let me count the ways.

Intense and chronic anger has a unique capacity to overwhelm us and trigger a cascade of changes –not all of them conscious - in the way we feel, think and behave, and in how we treat other people.  Being angry narrows the focus of our world, making it harder to think or deal with anything except what is making us angry. At the most basic level, it distorts what we pay attention to. We become particularly attuned to anything that reflects our own angry state. We pay more attention to angry arguments generally and find them more convincing. In turn, we are more likely to resort to angry arguments ourselves to promote our case. We begin to think in a more careless way, paying less attention to the quality of the argument that somebody is making and being more influenced by the superficial characteristics of the person making the argument.

Chronic anger has a capacity to feed on itself. Our threshold for provocation is lowered.  We expect life to throw even more annoyances at us. Compared to our non-angry counterparts, we believe that the chances of being ripped off or disrespected are higher. The angrier we feel, the more we blame those we judge responsible. The more we blame, the angrier we get. This blaming tendency carries over, making it more likely we will blame somebody in other, unrelated situations.

Blaming can become a highly destructive pattern, with angry people becoming ever more judgmental and indiscriminately punitive. This has a particularly pernicious effect on interpersonal and social relationships. Angry people feel less trust in their co-workers and acquaintances, even when those people have played no role in making them angry in the first place.  They are more likely to be negative about people who are not members of the own social, work or ethnic group, they are more likely to stereotype them and to want to act against them. This kind of anger is often linked to the expression of contempt – the single most predictive factor in marriage breakdown.

Angry people may - initially at least - be technically in the right a lot of the time.  But being technically right, being justified is useless if your anger is disproportionate. Even if you are nominally defending someone else, an excessively angry intervention is likely to be a source of worry rather than help. Behaviour of this kind can often include a large component of displaced anger at others or ourselves about other issues at home or at work. Put an angry brooding person like this behind the wheel of a car and you get road rage. A minor discourtesy from another driver escalates into a nasty confrontation. It is a truism that people who are angry with themselves can vent their anger on the innocent and weak – on dogs, on children or on easy public targets.

Over the last year, wave after wave of public anger has surged through Ireland. Much of it is justified, especially in the case of those who have been directly damaged or hurt by the actions of irresponsible others. But what was originally a glorious righteous emotion, energising us to call national wrongdoers to account, is gradually hardening into a kind of smouldering recession rage.  As the downturn has lengthened, and as we have had more to be angry about, are we growing too fond of the physiological and psychological buzz of it all? 

We have acquired a standing army of the quick-to-anger, ready to jump in front of the camera or seize the microphone, bursting to give their fellow citizens an earful.  While readily acknowledging that there has been plenty of provocation, we also can hardly deny the emergence of a new national capacity for instant outrage and provocation. And the heart’s grown brutal from the fare.

There has been a noticeable coarsening in public discourse: name-calling, egg throwing, the casual use of explosive, angry expletives on the airways and in the Dail, a growing intolerance for anybody who expresses a view that does tune with the mood of the day. The new socially sanctioned public anger is in danger of being used to excuse the targeting and abuse of people, an arbitrary exercise of power made possible by a subtly new atmosphere of intimidation and fear.  Already, it has become virtually impossible for anybody to appeal for proportion. The same level of fury may be expressed irrespective of the scale of the offense. The hard-pressed ‘tax-payer’ seems to be accorded the same level of victimhood as those who have suffered appalling personal losses: of their livelihoods, their bodily integrity, or their very childhoods.

We know only too well from the nightmare of the Northern conflict that anger can keep feeding on itself long after events have moved on from the original grievances.  And that the extended explosion of this rage over decades created thousands of new victims. Of course, the scale of public anger provoked by the current recession is nothing like that of Northern Ireland. But nobody can deny that as the recession has taken hold, we have been overwhelmed by very powerful events, and many of us have experienced huge personal losses, disappointments and rage.

Flying off the handle may be exhilarating for us, but it can be scary for others.  Our angry voices, however justified, may be drowning out the far fewer among us who have even greater reason to have their voices heard and their hurts acknowledged. Being frequently in the vicinity of routine or simmering anger can incapacitate those who have been victimized in the past.  Many of those now staying quiet have simply had long practice at keeping their anger in check. Their voices will be excluded by the general scale of aggression and conflict which is now a feature of much public discourse.

The results are predictable. We have already witnessed the growing tension between the public and private sector, the increased tendency to turn on each other. Sustained anger will undermine the social norms of common decency, good humour and generosity that are a fundamental part of what we think of as our quality of life on this island. We will lose sight of our interdependence on each other. We will become distracted from our other important individual and national goals.  Nobody thinks it is a good idea that someone we care about should be chronically angry. The psychological research evidence is clear: letting rip and venting rage does not ‘get it out of your system’. It actually escalates anger and aggression and does nothing to help you or the person you are angry with to resolve the problem. It damages your heart and undermines your wellbeing. Why on earth would we think it is good for a society or a society’s heart?

In any case, the contribution of public anger to the achievement of real accountability must surely at this stage be governed by a law of diminishing returns. In identifying and challenging wrongdoing, we can only strengthen our case if we prosecute it with normal civility and respect rather than with anger and contempt.  Indeed, we can help to moderate our own anger, and improve the rigor and fairness of accountability, by acknowledging that our response nationally over the last year has contained a significant element of displaced anger at ourselves. Any comprehensive account of the recession must explain how, collectively at least, we willfully re-elected public representatives who were widely known to be involved in wrongdoing.  Nor can any of us take pride in the fact that we regularly told each other that house prices were ‘mad’ and ‘can’t last’ yet did nothing collectively to put pressure on senior politicians to act decisively to stop the escalation. And why did none of us shout ‘stop’ to the extravagant waste and parochialism of the decentralization fiasco which turned planning and accountability on its head and inflated the speculative bubble in construction? Clearing out the management of the banks may have been an exhilarating start to accountability but we still have a long way to go to construct a fair and comprehensive story of extremely complicated events.

We managed to come out of the recession of the 80’s with the national social fabric largely intact. This time round, the right to anger has been exercised far more freely and widely as we tried to make sense of what happened – a response which is itself, perhaps, an out-growth of the sense of entitlement we developed during the Celtic Tiger years.  There will be a huge national task of social repair and reconciliation to be faced if we do not collectively see the wisdom putting some brake on the further public expression of anger. Recall Aristotle’s warning: ‘Anybody can become angry - that is easy; but to be angry with the right person, and to the right degree, and at the right time, and with the right purpose, and in the right way - that is not easy.’  Let us stop taking the easy option and begin that more thoughtful and difficult process. Only then will be able to collectively transform our helpless anger into a more focused determination to set things right and create a better future.

Originally published in The Irish Times


Posted: 04 January 2010