Sing, O Muse, of Rage

My tongue will tell the anger of my heart, or else my heart concealing it will break.

― William Shakespeare

Anger is one of our clearest emotions. Gripping our attention with urgency, it calls often for a violent anti-social response which runs in stark contrast to the collaborative default of much of modern life.

As such, it is an emotion often derided in religions, philosophy, and other wisdom literature. Yet still it persists as an inexorable feature of our nature, we are still left to grapple with its grip and its aftermath. With the benefit of modern research, we can sketch now more clearly the pull it has on us, and discern exactly how to wield it for good, and how to be wary of its deception.12

Extended Harm

Anger, in humans and in all mammals, is triggered by the perception that a harm has been done to us. This harm might be immediate and direct, a bodily harm like a punch to the face, or it might be an indirect harm to someone we identify with, or it might even be a harm to an expectation or plan that we held for the future.For the purposes of identifying harm, we perceive ourselves in a porous, extended sense, plotting our path out into the future and reeling from any harm to those future selves.

This extended notion of harm is why driving can so enrage us ― on the road, we plan and expect to follow some invisible course on the road. Other drivers as well plot their courses, and often they are mutually incompatible. As the path we’ve plotted for ourselves gets erased by some other driver “cutting us off” (noting carefully the charged, violent language), that future path is killed off, and we naturally feel anger rise within us. Anger is the natural response to any emerging obstacle to our plans.

This extended nature of harm lets Anger trigger even when no harm has occurred, when all that is harmed is “our ego”, or some story that we tell about ourselves or others. When we participate in social fictions, and weave them into our identity, we can feel a distant trade deal or political slight as if it were a harm to ourselves, and let our Anger drive us to war. If we participate in a social fiction based on race or ethnic background, we might feel as if real harm is done when immigrants enter our borders, or when some other ethnicity appears particularly successful in comparison. We should be especially wary of such constructs which can extend our sense of self in ways which pushes us into conflict because of mere fictions.

Orienting Blame

Upon feeling the pain or recognizing the initial triggering harm, Anger calls for us to find someone to Blame. Anger requires a target ― unlike other emotions like Fear or Sadness, you cannot be generically Angry, Anger must always be directed at some target. In perceiving the harm and forming it into Anger, we orient ourselves with reflexive blame.

This blaming reflex pushes us to identify a singular, proximate, anthropomorphic threat at which to be Angry. Because, Anger was evolved to help us eliminate threats before they eliminated us, we look for something which, ideally, could plausibly threaten us. Because the response Anger engenders is immediate, the Blame Reflex also looks for the threat to be nearby (causally “proximate”), so that we can most easily strike back. Because we can only attack one thing at a time, Anger tends to orient towards a singular threat. And because all of this assumes we are being attacked by a living being (attacking a rock which we stumbled over makes little sense), the blame reflex causes us to look for a cause which is human-like (“anthropomorphic”).

This blaming reflex can often misfire, especially in modern social situations. If, walking in the dark at night, you stub your toe on your table, you might find yourself reflexively hitting your table, possibly worsening your injury. If your computer doesn’t perform as you’d like, you might find yourself throwing it across the room, again a rather counterproductive strategy. Both of these are misfirings of the blaming reflex ― you identified your table or computer as if it was threatening you, and directed your Anger at it, even though, as inanimate objects, they had no choice in the matter.

Sometimes, this can lead us to be Angry at the wrong people. Perhaps if your flight is cancelled due to weather conditions, you might find yourself yelling at a customer service representative. Although they are not responsible for the weather or the airline’s policies, they are nearby (proximate) and human (anthropomorphic), and thus your blame reflex more naturally rests your Anger on them than on vague systemic policies or natural causes.

Whether the target is inanimate, a simple representative, or maybe just a small part of a bigger problem, our Blaming Reflex is generally ill-adapted to our modern social life, full of systematic policies and distant, complicated causes. As a general rule, we should be very suspicious of any accusations we make in Anger, and try to wait until our heads are cool to think through more reasonable causes. The kind of Blame which is most natural to us is almost always wrong in any but the simplest cases.

The Catharsis of Justified Destruction

To escape responsibility for violence we imagine it is enough to pledge never to be the first to do violence. But no one ever sees himself as casting the first stone. Even the most violent persons believe that they are always reacting to a violence committed in the first instance by someone else.

― Rene Girard

Ultimately, Anger drives us towards “defensive aggression”, aimed at the object of our Blame. Once we have identified a Threat which we Blame for our past hurt, we (perhaps reasonably) expect that this Threat might continue to cause harm in the future. The fiery impetus behind Anger leads us to destroy the Threat, to Harm whatever we Blame until it could no longer Hurt us in the future.

Sufficiently Harming the Blamed Threat leads us to a catharsis, a release of the impulse of Anger, and that relief can be very satisfying. But if the Blame was incorrect, or somehow insufficient, we might find ourselves again Harmed, again Angry, Blaming some new target (or perhaps the old one yet again). If this cycle repeats enough, we might enter a state of paranoia, where the catharsis becomes harder and harder to attain, so that more and more extreme Harm must be effected in order to achieve cathartic relief.

Another possible dysfunction of Anger is to project it from the real Blamed Threat onto a similar target. If we are mad at a co-worker, and project that Anger instead onto a loved one, our attack on our loved one is unlikely to generate any kind of relief ― naturally, our brain will not feel any safer from the real identified threat just because we’ve hurt someone else. Fundamentally, this function comes from an undirected understanding of Anger; if you think Anger is a feeling that you have, you might think that acting out in an aggressive way at anyone might fix it. Especially if the real target of your Anger was your boss (who is especially socially difficult to attack), you might be tempted to instead attack your spouse (who, being closer and more often in private, might be easier to attack). Such projections are not only obviously harmful to those you love, but also fundamentally mask the deeper problem and make catharsis more and more elusive.

Attacking people is, in generally, not a particularly healthy solution in our society. Our justice system (and by extension, much of our institutionalized society) is devoted to creating healthy channels for retribution, so that the naturally misleading impulse of Anger can be satisfied without letting it direct the proceedings. Yet still, there are many instances of interpersonal interaction where harm is not subject to legal retribution, or where justice is not fairly dealt by our society and Anger is not satisfied. In those cases, despite the high cost of a contentious interaction, sometimes the harm is likewise grievous, or sometimes the harm is small but repetitive, accretion over time to a more serious harm, so that there is still today some place for Anger, for Blame (misleading as it may be), and for defensive aggression.

  1. Panksepp, Affective Neuroscience, 2004.

  2. Panksepp, "The basic emotional circuits of mammalian brains", 2011. link.