We’ve all been there before. Maybe you’re driving to work, already running behind, and someone in front of you is driving too slow. Your patience is running thin, and you snap. You yell, honk, or maybe even issue a crude hand gesture to the driver in front of you.
Good news: you’re not alone. We’ve all been angry before, and we could all tell stories about specific times we when we did something we otherwise wouldn’t have done or even ended up regretting. The question we end up asking then is… why?
Dr. Jerry Deffenbacher, an anger researcher at Colorado State University, helped us answer that question in a 1996 book chapter, Cognitive-Behavioral Approaches to Anger Reduction, where he outlined a model of how and why we feel anger when we do.
In this article, he defined anger as
“an internal affective experience that may vary in intensity and chronicity and can refer both to the experience of the moment (state anger) and to the propensity to experience state anger across time and situations (trait and situation-specific anger)” (p. 33).
In other words, anger is an emotional experience that can be sparked by a variety of experience. For example, he described four main types of provocations, what he calls “precipitants”:
- External situation: Being cut off while driving
- External situations that trigger memories: Being insulted may remind you of a time when you were insulted as a child.
- Internal states: Continuing to ruminate about an event well after it has happened.
- Immediate preanger state: What the person is feeling and thinking when the experience the precipitant.
Deffenbacher also explains that a person’s preanger state, which refers to both what the person is thinking and feeling at the time of the event and to his or her long-standing personality characteristics, influences the likelihood of getting angry. For example, someone who is more narcissistic or close-minded tends to become angry more easily. Likewise, when you feel tired, hungry, or are already frustrated, you are more likely to get angry.
Third, and probably most important is what Deffenbacher refers to as the appraisal process. When we are faced with any sort of precipitant, we ask ourselves some questions: Was the event blameworthy? Was the event justified? Should it have happened? Can I cope with it? The answer to those questions predicts whether or not you get angry and how angry you get.
Now, there are some people who tend to be angry thinkers. They tend to interpret situations in ways that are more likely to make them angry. In fact, Dr. Ryan Martin, who manages the All the Rage blog and podcast, once developed a survey to measure the types of thoughts that lead to anger (Martin & Dahlen, 2007). You can take that survey if you want to learn more about yourself and whether or not you tend to have thoughts like these:
- Overgeneralizing: a tendency to code events broadly when assessing time (e.g., always, never) and people (e.g., everybody, nobody, cruel, useless).
- Catastrophizing: a tendency to appraise events as highly negative, potentially debilitating, and impossible to cope with (e.g., This is awful, What a disaster).
- Misattributing Causation: a tendency to jump to negative conclusions while ignoring the possibility of other interpretations.
- Demandingnes: a tendency to place one’s own needs and desires above those of others, elevating one’s wishes into dictates over others.
- Inflammatory Labeling: a tendency to categorize situations in highly negative ways, often using offensive language and highly emotional terms.
Imagine that you haven’t had the chance to eat much today. You’re pulling into your favorite restaurant and all you can think about is your favorite meal. You’ve made reservations, and when you get there, they don’t seem to have your reservation on file. However, the wait is only 25 minutes, so you appraise the event as disappointing, but an honest mistake that you can cope with. That said, you definitely feel annoyed and hungry. Finally, you get to sit down and you order your meal. When the meal comes out, you realized that this isn’t what you ordered. What would run through your head as you realize this situation? You’re hungry, they didn’t save your reservation, you had to wait an extra 25 minutes, and now the food you’ve been looking forward to all day is not sitting in front of you like you had wanted. You appraise this set of precipitants as blame worthy and unjustified. Your heart starts to beat faster, you clench your jaw, your face starts to get red, and you get mad.
How do you handle it? Do you tell the waiter/waitress off? Do you demand the manager and yell at them? Do you start to cry? Do you storm out to get food elsewhere? Or do you just eat what is in front of you because it’s there, you’re hungry, or you don’t want to make a scene? How people behave in situations like these depends on a host of factors including their personalities, the preanger state, cognitive appraisals, and more.
Deffenbacher, J. L. (1996) Cognitive-behavioral approaches to anger reduction. In K. S. Dobson & K. D. Craig (Eds). Advances in Cognitive-Behavioral Therapy. Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage.
Martin, R. C., & Dahlen, E. R. (2007). The Angry Cognitions Scale: A new inventory for assessing cognitions in anger. Journal of Rational-Emotive and Cognitive Behavior Therapy, 25, 155-173.
By Allee Schramm
Allee is a senior graduating in May of 2017 with a major in Psychology and a minor in Human Development. She plans to attend graduate school in the future to earn her Master’s Degree in Industrial Organizational Psychology.