Five Questions with Dr. Ryan Martin

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Dr. Ryan Martin is an associated professor in the Departments of Human Development and Psychology at the University of Wisconsin-Green Bay.  He has a Ph.D. in Counseling Psychology from the University of Southern Mississippi and has been studying anger for about 11 years.  You can learn more about Dr. Martin by visiting his website at: www.uwgb.edu/martinr

1. What motivated you to start studying anger in the first place?

When I was an undergraduate student at the University of St. Thomas, I worked at an adolescent shelter, run by the Salvation Army, called Booth Brown House.  The shelter was a place for kids who didn’t have anywhere else they could stay and were awaiting placement in a group home, a foster home, or even back with their parents.  Most of them were considered “at-risk” for one reason or another and I noticed during my work there that difficulty controlling their anger was a fairly salient problem for the vast majority of them.  For that reason, along with my own experiences with anger when I was growing up, I decided I wanted to study anger in graduate school.  I was fortunate that the same year I started at the University of Southern Mississippi, Dr. Eric Dahlen was starting as a new faculty member with a research program in anger.  He and I started working together on various projects during that first year and have continued to collaborate.   

2.  What would you say is the most important research you have done on anger?

My doctoral dissertation was the creation of an assessment tool, the Angry Cognitions Scale, that was designed to measure the types of angry thoughts that are associated with anger.  Since then, I have done several follow-up studies to validate the scale’s usefulness as a predictor of angry responses and anger consequences.  However, my new line of research looks at how anger is expressed online.  I am currently working on studies designed to explore how people express their anger in anonymous venues, such as online discussion forums, as compared to non-anonymous venues like Facebook or email.  Similarly, I recently collected data on how people use rant-sites, websites where people can rant about any topic they choose (see www.justrage.com for an example).  This is an exciting area because we know so little about it.

3.  What do you think are the most important questions that anger researchers have yet to answer?

Anger is an understudied emotion compared to others and most of the research that’s been done seems to focus on the negative side of anger (e.g., the consequences of maladaptive anger).  Little research has been done on the positive value of anger when it’s being expressed in a healthy way.  There are many people who make their anger work for them and don’t see the sorts of consequences that others experience. I think it would be helpful to learn more about such individuals.

4.  What do you think are some of the most common misconceptions about anger?

To me, there are two primary misconceptions.  First, that anger is always harmful or problematic.  People fail to recognize that anger is normal and healthy but that, like any emotion, it can become problematic if experienced too often or in extremes.  Second, many people still believe that venting their anger through catharsis is the best way to get rid of it.  The catharsis myth has been debunked many times but still seems to hang on.  It’s too bad because one of the things we know about catharsis is that, not only does it not help people get rid of their anger, it usually makes the problem worse. 

5.  If there was one thing you would like people to understand about anger, what would it be?

I would like to help people understand the upside of their anger and to learn to use it as a tool.  I think if people can recognize the feeling states associated with anger and learn to express it in a healthy way, through appropriate assertiveness, problems solving, etc, they’ll be better off. 

Ineffective Anger Treatment with Violent Offenders: Why Brief Therapy Doesn’t Always Work

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Though there is a wealth of evidence supporting the value of therapy in addressing problematic anger, recent research in Behaviour Research and Therapy suggests that the brief-term therapy model often used in criminal justice settings may not work with violent offenders. The intervention under study consisted of 20 total hours (10 sessions, 2 hours each) with three modules defined in the article as understanding anger, understanding thinking, feeling, and doing, and managing and expressing anger. The results of the study indicated that while participants did better understand anger and its impact, they did not see a meaningful decrease in the experience of anger.

One of the study’s three authors, Dr. Andrew Day, identified two important points to take from this work. “The first is that not all violent offences and violent offenders are the same and that it is important to conduct an individual assessment of the causes and consequences of violence before recommending anger management.” He points out that “some violent offences such as armed robbery are often unrelated to anger regulation problems and as such the routine referral of violent offenders to anger management programs is unlikely to be a particularly effective strategy”. The second point, he says, is that “violent offenders may not respond well to this particular type of treatment. They may for example require longer in treatment given the multiple needs that offenders often experience (e.g., co-occurring mental health and substance use issues), and may have beliefs about themselves, others and the world that have developed since childhood and are, therefore, difficult to change.”

Dr. Day is quick to point out, however, that anger management programs work for most people. Likewise, he believes we should not give up on the notion of rehabilitation. “In my view it is possible to work constructively with these individuals to help them understand the causes of their behavior and to resolve conflict in ways that do not involve violence.” He says “there is a real need to develop better rehabilitation programs for offenders given that criminal justice responses that are based on punishment and deterrence are unlikely by themselves to lead to behavior change.”

If you have any questions for Dr. Day, he can be reached by email at andrew.day@deakin.edu.au.

By Ryan C. Martin

The Inciting World of Sports

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Question: Is it true that there are more cases of domestic violence on Super Bowl Sunday than any other day of the year?

Several online sources refer to this as the Super Bowl Myth and have outlined data to the contrary (see the following: Snopes, Family Violence Prevention Fund, and Parade). The basic premise here is that the aggression laden sport of football promotes violence amongst male viewers who take the game too seriously. 

As it turns out, though, calling it an all out myth might be going a bit too far.  While it is not true that there are more instances of domestic violence on Super Bowl Sunday than any other day of the year, at least one study has found a relationship between domestic violence and football viewership on Super Bowl Sunday.

Not surprisingly, there is very little research on the relationship between football viewership and violence.  A 2003 paper presented at the annual meeting of the International Communication Association appears to be the most thorough evaluation of the topic.  In this paper, the authors found that, across 12 cities with NFL teams, there was a slight increase in reported cases of domestic violence on Super Bowl Sunday.  However, they also found that this increase was consistent with the increases seen on Thanksgiving, Memorial Day, and Labor Day and, therefore, it probably had less to do with football than it has to do with a host of other factors associated with special occasions (e.g., parties, alcohol, high expectations, increased interaction with spouse). 

All that having been said, it’s clear that many people find themselves getting too riled up over football (and other sports) and it often leaves others wondering why.  After all, it’s only a game, right?  Well, as it turns out, there are several basic psychological phenomena that make anger a likely reaction for some when they watch sports.  

Basking in Reflected Glory: One concept, originally described by Robert Cialdini and relevant to sports viewership, is the tendency of people to bask in the reflected glory (BIRG) of successful others.  You often hear this in the language they use to discuss their favorite team.  Fans respond to victory by saying “we” won, “we” played great, and who do “we” play next.  Even though they themselves have done nothing concrete to have earned the victory, they still see themselves as part of the team and, therefore, partially responsible for the victory.  Sports enthusiasts are not the only people who BIRG.  We see it amongst political supporters, in the workplace, amongst teenagers trying to identify with popular kids, and other groups.

Tension: Once you acknowledge that fans care about the outcome because they identify with the team (i.e., they BIRG), it’s easy to understand the tension that accompanies viewing a sporting event.  This becomes even more true as the stakes get higher.  The more important the game, the greater the tension and, as was discussed under Anger Basics, people experience greater anger in response to negative events if they are already feeling tense or on edge. 

Elevated Status and Meaning: It is not uncommon to hear fans describe sporting events as hugely important or even monumental occasions, elevating the status and meaning of the events well beyond their actual implications.  Attaching so much importance to an event will certainly lead to frustration and anger when there is an undesired outcome.  In other words, if someone thinks that watching their team win will be the best thing that ever happened to them, watching them lose will probably feel like the worst thing that has ever happened to them.   

Perceptions of Unfairness: Anytime a sporting event is decided by just a few points, it’s easy to find controversy or some reason why the outcome was not fair or deserved. Ambiguous calls by officials, poor play by a player, or poor coaching all fall into the category of reasons why a team “should” have won and otherwise “would” have won.  It all feeds into the feeling that the desired outcome was taken from the fan and gives the fan a specific target to be angry with (e.g., coach, referees). 

Secondary Gain: Finally, for some, the outcome of the game has actual consequences.  Typically, these consequences are manufactured by the person ahead of time through gambling, fantasy football, or even just through banter with a friend who supports the opposition (i.e., “smack talk”).  For such people, the outcome has very real financial or social implications and it is easy to have an emotional reaction to the idea of lost money or damaged pride.

The good news is that no one is doomed to feel angry every time his or her team loses.  There are some fairly simple steps that can be taken to help decrease unwanted feelings of anger. 

  1. Keep it in Perspective: It is important, not just during the game but in the time leading up to it, to remember the real implications of things not going the way you want them to.  It may be easier said than done but try to keep in mind what it will really mean if your team loses or wins. 
  2. Awareness and Relaxation: Being aware of feelings of tension and anger in the moment and introducing relaxation approaches can be a valuable way to decrease unwanted anger.  Useful relaxation approaches can include deep breathing, counting, progressive muscle relaxing and others.  
  3. Limit the Banter: Friendly banter can become unfriendly in a hurry so it’s a good idea to remember not to dish out any more than you can take.  Adding damaged pride to a loss only makes it worse and there’s a good chance that the targets of your excessive smack talk will come back at you when you are down. 
  4. Avoidance: Ultimately, it might make sense for people to consider whether or not they want to invite something into their life that makes them so angry.  Watching sports is a choice, even for people who are really passionate about them, and you can choose not to watch if it isn’t healthy for you or the people around you. 

By Ryan C. Martin
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