Anger is a Swing State

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This is a companion essay, written by Annie Jones and Ryan Martin, to Episode 2: Anger is a Swing State of the All the Rage Podcast.

all-the-rage-podcast-art-finalWith the presidential debates in full swing, we are no strangers to the emotions associated with them.  Like all elections, the presidential election has brought a lot of anger and disappointment for many voters. In light of all the rage, online and elsewhere, it seems like a good time to talk about why people get so angry over politics.

At the heart of it, people get angry about politics for the same reason they get angry about anything (listen here for details).  They interpret the political process or the outcome as negative, unfair, unjustified, or blameworthy.  When a candidate says something they don’t agree with, they interpret it as unreasonable.  When they find out that their friend supports a candidate they dislike, they interpret it as a disruption of their friendship.

Even though anger over politics comes from the same basic principles as other anger, there are a few reasons why politics, in particular, can lead to such intense anger:

  1. 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.
  2. 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.
  3. 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.
  4. Language Use Surrounding Politics: For a very long time, we have used war or combat as a metaphor for elections. This is evident in the language we use to describe them (e.g., battleground states, campaigns, taking shots, firing back, attack ads, gaining and losing ground).  Such language is not meaningless.  How we talk about something is a reflection of how we think of it, and if we talk about elections in aggressive terms, we likely come to think of them as aggressive and violent experiences.   Something as simple as a change in the way we discuss or describe politics could maybe have an effect on how we view it. Instead of a fight, it could be a race or even a conversation.
  5. 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 also fair to acknowledge that politicians have a vested interest in making us angry, as shown by Dr. Timothy Ryan of the University of Michigan, who took an interesting look at what makes us click on advertisements associated with politics in his 2012 article, What Makes Us Click? Demonstrating Incentives for Angry Discourse with Digital-Age Field Experiments. He was interested in look at how anxiety and anger evoking ads might make one more or less likely to click on it.

Although fear and anger are both used in political campaigns, this study shows that anger better motivated participants to click on and read political ads. In this experiment, Ryan exposed Internet users to a randomly assigned political advertisement during the course of routine web browsing. They either received a neutral text, a text evoking anxiety, or a text evoking anger.

The results confirm the idea that politicians have a strong incentive to use emotionally charged communication. It was found the anger-inducing advertisement more than doubled the click-rate of the political advertisement.  From a financial perspective, a campaign should use anger in their ads to increase the impact of those ads.

With a better idea of where all this political anger comes from, one can take precautions to reduce the negative feelings associated with the electron. A great anger management tip is to start your day in an uplifting way, try to avoid the use of social media or even television. During the election season, our news, whether via television, newspapers, or our social media feeds, tend to be full of angering information related to politics.  Waking up to these could put you in a negative mood right from the start. Avoiding this can allow you to start your day with reduced negative stimulation. Along these lines, try not to seek out things that you know will anger you.  While people should try to stay informed, they can also find ways not to invite angering stimuli into their lives.


Ryan, T. J. (2012). What makes us Click? Demonstrating incentives for angry discourse with digital-age field experiments. Journal of Politics, 74(4), 1138-1152. doi:10.1017/S0022381612000540


By Annie Jones

Annie is a senior, majoring in Psychology and minoring in Human Development, Human Biology, and German. After graduating from UWGB, she plans on attending the University of Wisconsin-Madison for their Genetic Counseling Master’s program.



Why We Get Mad

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This is a companion essay, written by Allee Schramm, to Episode 1: Why We Get Mad of the All the Rage Podcast.

all-the-rage-podcast-art-finalWe’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.

Why We Get MadIn 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”:

  1. External situation: Being cut off while driving
  2. External situations that trigger memories: Being insulted may remind you of a time when you were insulted as a child.
  3. Internal states: Continuing to ruminate about an event well after it has happened.
  4. 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:

  1. Overgeneralizing: a tendency to code events broadly when assessing time (e.g., always, never) and people (e.g., everybody, nobody, cruel, useless).
  2. Catastrophizing: a tendency to appraise events as highly negative, potentially debilitating, and impossible to cope with (e.g., This is awful, What a disaster).
  3. Misattributing Causation: a tendency to jump to negative conclusions while ignoring the possibility of other interpretations.
  4. Demandingnes: a tendency to place one’s own needs and desires above those of others, elevating one’s wishes into dictates over others.
  5. Inflammatory Labeling: a tendency to categorize situations in highly negative ways, often using offensive language and highly emotional terms.

ACS SurveyHow does this apply to a real life situation?  Let’s walk through a precipitant that could result in someone experiencing anger.

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.

headshotBy 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.

Coming Soon: The All the Rage Podcast

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all-the-rage-podcast-art-finalIn September, All the Rage will be launching a monthly podcast on all topics related to anger and violence.  I’ll cover subjects like Road Rage, Internet Trolling, The Catharsis Myth, and more.  Guests will include other anger and violence experts from across the country, along with listeners who just have a great story to tell.

In this first episode, I’ll be talking about Why We Get Mad and I’m looking for my first guest- someone who wants to tell a really good story about a time they got angry and help me break down the situational and individual factors that caused that anger.  If you want to be that guest, or just have an idea for an episode or a question, call or text (920) 328-5167 or email me at