Why Driving Makes Us Mad

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If you were an evil genius and wanted to develop a situation that made people angry, it would look a lot like driving. 

Here are four reasons why:

Tension.  Quite simply, driving is dangerous.  Because it is dangerous, it makes us nervous.  This is true whether we have been doing it for days, years, or decades.  Even if we are so used to it that we don’t notice it anymore, we still feel some tension when we drive.  Read the rest at Psychology Today.

Avoiding the Angry Email

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In talking with some colleagues, it’s becoming more and more common to get angry and sometimes even aggressive emails from students.  It seems the typical pattern is that a student gets a bad grade on something or doesn’t agree with a decision the instructor has made and quickly fires off an angry email to try and resolve the situation (or sometimes just to complain about it).

I can certainly attest to having received such emails and it’s never pleasant.  Typically, they are full of bolded words, the excessive use of capital letters, and lack any sort of salutation.  When I get them, it bothers me for several reasons.  It’s rude, disrespectful, and makes me feel as though my hard work isn’t appreciated.  What’s worse, though, is that sometimes the student is right in his or her criticism or concern but wrong in how he or she expressed it.  In other words, the student is making a very valid point but it’s hard to find because it’s hidden behind all those exclamation points. 

If you are a student, this is exactly why you should think twice about sending such an email.  Your position might be absolutely correct but you are making it really easy for your instructor to ignore it by being rude.  Once you send a hostile email, the exchange stops being about your concern and starts being about your nasty email. 

If you have done this, you are certainly not alone.  It’s a common mistake and there are all sorts of reasons why electronic communication lends itself to this sort of thing. 

Exacerbating Impulsivity.  The electronic format worsens impulse control problems because it’s too quick and easy.  When I was a student (in the olden days before email), if I wanted to voice a concern to one of my teachers, not only did I have to have a face to face talk, I had to wait to the next class or his or her office hours to have that talk (I suppose I could have used the phone but I don’t think many people did that).  That gave me plenty of time to cool off and think about the best way to handle the situation. 

With email (and texting, Facebook posts, etc.), you can send your response immediately.  This means that you are responding when you are most angry, which influences what you write.  You are less rational and less likely to think through the consequences.  While that angry email likely does capture what you are really feeling, it’s probably not expressing that frustration in the most effective way.  Consequently, you may fail to get your point across or, worse yet, you may damage your relationship and reputation with the instructor.

Perceived Anonymity. A second issue is that email feels semi-anonymous to people.   It’s not anonymous, of course, but the distance between you and the recipient may stop you from censoring yourself.  As you are typing the email, you aren’t looking the person in the eye, you aren’t seeing his or her facial expression, or listening to his or her side of the story.  If it were a face-to-face conversation, you might notice that he or she is really processing what you are saying and you may come to understand his or her perspective before things get too heated.  Even if that doesn’t happen, it’s just harder for most people to say hurtful things to a person’s face.  When you can see that what you are saying is hurting or offending them, you are more likely to back off. 

Now, by no means am I suggesting that you not voice your concerns or frustration to your instructors.  They make mistakes sometimes and, when they do, their students have the right to try and address those mistakes.  In fact, I want you to voice that frustration… just more effectively. 

So, students, the next time you want to voice a concern to one of your instructors, I would encourage you to do the following before you hit send. 

  1. Don’t hit send at all.  Go talk to the person if you can.  Email is sometimes the easy way out.  It’s what people rely on when they don’t want to have a real but uncomfortable conversation with someone.  Clearly, there are times when email may be the way to go (e.g., an online class) but, if it’s possible to avoid it, it might make sense to do so.   
  2. Wait.  Emotions are usually short lived. If you can wait it out, your anger will start to dissipate and the email you send will probably be better for it.  If you feel you need to do something, go ahead and start writing but don’t send until you’ve had a chance cool off, reread, think it through, and probably rewrite some parts.    
  3. Have it read.  You may want to ask a friend you trust to read it before you send it.  If that person is removed from the situation, he or she might be able to offer some much needed perspective, tell you if it sounds rude, or if it’s unclear. 
  4. Be professional. Sometimes, what comes across as rudeness or excessive anger is actually a lack of professionalism (or, worse yet, a combination of both).  Treat these emails the way you would treat a letter.  Start with some sort of greeting (e.g., Dear Professor…), use correct grammar, punctuation, and spelling, and end with some sort of farewell (e.g., Sincerely or Thanks for your consideration, etc).  This may seem a bit old school to some but, ultimately, it’s just a polite way to communicate with people and will go a long way in taking the edge off.
  5. Be emoticon free. Related to a lack of professionalism, avoid anything that’s designed to show, explicitly, how angry you are.  Stay away from frowning faces, all capital letters, extra exclamation points, using bold or colored font, etc.  Assuming you are trying to change your instructor’s mind about something or alert him or her to a problem (see number six below), these sorts of superfluous elements only get in the way of your point. 
  6. Ask yourself why you are sending it. Make sure you are aware of the end result you are hoping for.  Do you want the instructor to change a grade, rethink a policy, or just to offer an explanation?  Regardless, make sure it’s clear to the instructor what you want.  Otherwise, it will just feel to him or her like useless venting.  If the point is just to vent, it’s probably better not to send it at all and find some other way to deal with your anger. 

By Ryan C. Martin
To ask a question of All the Rage, visit the Submit a Question link under Contact Us.

Thanks for Nothing, Mother Nature!

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As we approach Memorial Day weekend when people have many outdoor plans, it is common for people to voice frustration toward the weather.  This prompted several readers to request an explanation.  Specifically, readers want to know, “what’s the point of getting angry over something we can’t control?”

Anger over the weather occurs for the same reasons people get mad at anything they consider unpleasant.  The lack of control does not change anything and there are actually many examples of things outside of our control that make us angry (e.g., traffic, decisions made by employers, legislators or parents).  In fact, a lack of control is a common aspect of the anger experience because when people have control, they tend to exercise that control to try and solve the problem that is causing their frustration.

Ultimately, what is happening is that people perceive the weather as unfairly interfering with their goals.  Whether it is going for walks, having a picnic, or planning an outdoor party, people’s plans depend on the weather and anger is a very natural response to having one’s goals blocked.  The more important the event (e.g., a wedding), the more frustration the person is likely to feel (along with some other negative emotions).  Likewise, people seem to become angrier when there is bad weather on a weekend as compared to a weekday because it is more likely to disrupt their personal plans.

There are several things, though, that stand out with regard to anger at the weather.

Serious Complications. First, the weather is not always just an inconvenience.  For some, it disrupts their very livelihood.  Bad storms can destroy crops, can destroy homes, and even take lives.  These and other problems are not just mild hassles.  They are serious losses and anger is a very natural part of the grieving process.

Universality. There is a reason why weather is the go-to for small talk with strangers.  It is a shared event (i.e., everyone in a particular community is dealing with the same weather) so it is the one thing that people know they have in common with the grocery store clerk, bus driver, or random person on the elevator.  What this means with regard to anger is that there are many people you can vent to.  The problem is that venting tends to do little more than make the frustration greater, as people are reminding themselves throughout the day how irritating it all is.

No One to Blame. Finally, one interesting aspect of this sort of anger is that there is no one to blame for bad weather.  Most of the time when we get angry, there is a culprit (e.g., our boss, spouse, parent).  Even traffic can be pinned, at least in our minds, on the person who caused the accident, the other drivers, the person who designed the intersection, etc.  In this case, though, we do not have an offending party.  That does not stop us from trying to find one, though, as we often make up a wrongdoer to be the recipient of our frustration (e.g., the weatherman, Mother Nature, or even God).  Like anything, people will find a target for their weather-related angst.

By Ryan C. Martin
To ask a question of All the Rage, visit the Submit a Question link under Contact Us.

The Value of Humor in Frustrating Times

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I find that when I’m angry, it helps to find something to laugh about.  Is that true or am I just fooling myself?

Chances are you are right that the humor is helping you in those situations.  There’s a fair amount of evidence to suggest that humor and laughter are important coping mechanisms that can help people deal with a variety of psychosocial problems.   First, though, it’s important to understand a little bit about what people find funny and why they laugh. 

Humor is a particularly difficult concept to discuss and study for a variety of reasons. First, there are substantial differences with regard to what people find funny.  Many types of jokes (e.g., puns, ethnic jokes, dirty jokes, slapstick) are not appreciated by everyone or even most people.  Second, context matters greatly in that various aspects of the situation (e.g., who told the joke, the location, the circumstances) influence whether or not someone perceives something as funny.  Consequently, something that would be considered hilarious in one situation may not be funny at all in another.  Due to all of this, identifying the important elements of humor has been a challenge. 

Ultimately, one of the best definitions of humor comes, not from a psychologist but from the author, George Orwell.  Orwell wrote in his 1945 essay, Funny, but Not Vulgar, that “a thing is funny when — in some way that is not actually offensive or frightening — it upsets the established order.”  To put this in psychological terms, people find something to be funny when it is surprises them, forces them to think about things in a new way, and when they perceive it as edgy or daring.  However, once something moves past the threshold from edgy to “offensive or frightening”, it is no longer funny. 

What does all this mean for anger?  Well, it means that people can use humor to change their mood and to think about things in a new light.  By no means is this a new idea.  In fact, Dr. Jerry Deffenbacher, one of psychology’s leading anger researchers, wrote of the importance of humor in his 1995 book chapter, Ideal Treatment Package for Adults with Anger Disorders.  In the chapter, published in Anger Disorders: Definition, Diagnosis, and Treatment, Deffenbacher argues that using humor with clients might actually be considered a cognitive intervention, similar to cognitive restructuring where clients evaluate the types of thoughts they have which might be leading them to experience more anger.  He suggests that, as part of cognitive restructuring, clients should try to rethink things in silly or humorous ways.  However, he is quick to point out that anger is not always the answer and, if people use it, they should make sure it is (a) silly rather than hostile or sarcastic and (b) not designed to laugh off problems but “to take a brief cognitive step backward, perhaps laughing at themselves and their cognitions, to reduce their anger and then approach the situation again” (p. 169).

The next question, though, is why does humor work in reducing anger?   There are actually a couple of simple reasons for the psychosocial benefits of humor. 

Incompatible Mood States. Humor seems to decrease anger because, to some degree, the psychological state of finding something funny is incompaible with the psychological state of anger.  In other words, it’s hard to be angry while, simultaneously, finding something funny.  Even if it is just for a brief instant, when someone finds something funny and laughs, their anger has dissipated somewhat.  This is actually very similar to the rationale for why relaxation is so valuable in treating both anger and anxiety.  One cannot be anxious and relaxed at the same time.  It is also why humor has been found to be such an effective coping mechanism for so many negative psychological states (e.g., stress, fear, sadness).  Of course, as described by Deffenbacher, certain types of humor like sarcasm are less valuable because they do not necessarily lead to a different mood state but rather serve as an aggressive means of expressing anger.  

Conflict Management. Humor has long been used as a conflict management strategy.  It serves to lighten the mood, put others at ease, facilitate communication of difficult and angering topics, and even to help in the delivery of bad news.  In fact, people laugh more often at something they say than at something said by someone else.  It is not so much that they find what they are saying to be funny.  It is that laughter can convey the lightheartedness that might be necessary to decrease tension and anger in a particularly challenging interpersonal situation. 

Cognitive Shifting. Finally, as described by both Deffenbacher and Orwell, humor represents a different way of looking at things.  When people get angry, it’s because they perceive the situation as unfair, unjustified, etc. Humor allows people to think about the provocation in a new light and, potentially, one that is less angering.  Likewise, it also allows the angry person to think of themselves and their angering thoughts in a new way.  When highly emotional, people sometimes think unreasonable, unrealistic, and, frankly, silly things.  Taking time to recognize the silliness of your recent thought that the person in the car in front of you is a total idiot or that not being able to find your car keys ruined the entire day can help give you some much needed perspective and help you cope with frustrating situations.

By Ryan C. Martin
To ask a question of All the Rage, visit the Submit a Question link under Contact Us.

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
To ask a question of All the Rage, visit the Submit a Question link under Contact Us.

The Foul Language of Politics

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We have been asked by some of our readers, as an addendum to a previous post on anger and politics, to write something about the tragic shooting in Arizona last week.  While it feels premature to comment on the motivations of the shooter, it seems reasonable to write more about the anger and aggression so prevalent in American politics. 

Much has already been made of the vitriolic language used by some candidates during this last election.  While this election cycle did seem more aggressive than most, there may be a deeper problem when it comes to how we talk about politics in America.  That is, our use of war as a metaphor for elections. 

Think for a moment about any one of the last few presidential elections.  In each case, the battle for the White House began with someone launching their campaign, traveling to battleground states to make their case and taking shots at their opponent.  In return, their opponent fired back, blasting them for their positions.  Back in the war rooms, their strategists plan to launch their next attack ad, targeting their opponent’s stances.  This continues… the candidates are bashed, hit, or dealt a blow, districts are targeted, candidates take aim, they fight for endorsements, they gain and lose ground, they go on the offensive, they defend themselves from attacks until, eventually, the showdown comes to an end and one is defeated

In fact, though most do not tend to think of it this way, even the word “campaign” has a military meaning: “A series of military operations undertaken to achieve a large-scale objective during a war” (American Heritage Dictionary, 2000).  In other words, the war metaphor is so deeply engrained in how we think of politics that even the word most often used to describe the process is combat term.  Such language is not meaningless.  How we talk about something is a reflection of how we think of it.    

There are other metaphors sometimes used to describe elections; the race metaphor or the debate metaphor.  Might we be better off if we thought of elections less as aggressive conflict and more as “an extended competition in which participants struggle to be the winner” or “a discussion involving opposing points”? To approach things this way means that candidates take the lead instead of gaining ground, they score points instead of taking shots or dealing blows, and they push to the finish line instead of going on the offensive. While not perfect, these may reflect healthier perspectives.

By Ryan C. Martin
To ask a question of All the Rage, visit the Submit a Question link under Contact Us

Enraged Over Politics: Where the Anger Comes From

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Question: It seems there is so much anger over politics in the United States these days.  Is there more than there used to be and, if so, why?

It’s hard to say if there is more anger than there used to be without any formal means of assessing such a thing.  However, there probably is not more anger than there used to be, as much as the anger is more visible to people now.  People can easily capture video examples of anger and aggression at campaign rallies and post those videos on the Internet for all to see.  Likewise, weblogs, chain emails, and other sorts of discussion forums offer yet another venue for people to express their frustration.  Consequently, exposure to this might make people feel as though there is more anger over politics than in the past.

As for why politics elicits so much anger from people, it happens for the same reason that people get angry about anything (see Anger Basics for a description of why and when people get angry).  People may feel their personal or professional goals are being blocked, that their positions or opinions are being ignored or devalued, or that they can’t cope with the outcome.  There are a couple of factors, though, that make anger over politics especially prevalent.

Exaggerated Claims
It’s well known that politicians tend to make exaggerated claims about their accomplishments or their opponent’s positions.  Those claims are often designed with the explicit purpose of making people angry (e.g., “my opponent voted for the largest tax increase in history”, “my opponent wants to dismantle social security”).  Thus, it isn’t surprising that those who believe the claims respond with frustration.  Meanwhile, it’s likely that those who don’t believe them respond with anger over what they perceive as dishonesty.

Selective Attention
Related to these exaggerated claims, voters seem to have a habit of only paying attention to the information that supports their perspective.  They tend to believe the claims of the candidate they endorse and to perceive the claims of the other as being dishonest.  They then look only for evidence that confirms their positions and ignore the data that refutes them.  The Internet has made it all the easier to only pay attention to confirming evidence.  If people believe a certain thing, they can usually find a website to validate their position.  It’s also made the spread of these exaggerated claims even easier because anyone can post just about anything on the Internet or send it out via email without regard for truth or accuracy.

Ultimately, what this means is that people will dichotomize by lumping the candidates and their supporters into groups (e.g., completely right vs. completely wrong) and fail to understand how the other side of an issue may have some validity. 

Feelings of Isolation
Another interesting aspect of politics is that people find out, in a way they don’t normally, how many other people in the city, state, or country agree or disagree with them.  When one is on the losing side of an election, it’s easy to feel isolated (e.g., “I can’t believe there are so many people out there who don’t get it”).  That feeling of isolation can spawn feelings of resentment and frustration.  

Anger as Appropriate
Sometimes, what we perceive as an anger problem might be more of an impulse control/aggression problem.  There is actually a place for healthy and productive anger in the political process.  If we think of anger as a valuable tool in alerting us to problems and motivating us to confront those problems, it’s perfectly reasonable to get angry when elected officials and candidates act irresponsibly, endorse positions that may harm us, etc.  The decisions that are made by elected officials affect many people in very real ways.  Consequently, some are affected quite negatively and, potentially, unfairly by those decisions (e.g., decreased funding to certain programs, increased taxes) and an angry response might be both reasonable and healthy.

It is how one chooses to express that anger that matters most.  At times, people can voice their anger in a positive way and use it to solve problems.  There were many people this election cycle who were angry but didn’t throw things, push people, or become verbally abusive.  Instead, their anger motivated them to register voters, hold rallies, or just to get out to vote.  It’s when people lost control that we saw the more aggressive examples emerge and that is a far bigger problem than the anger.

By Ryan C. Martin
To ask a question of All the Rage, visit the Submit a Question link under Contact Us