On May 21, The OC Register, wrote an article entitled:
Focus: A look into what makes Americans angry.
In the article, the register started out noting that “Anger is an emotion characterized by antagonism toward someone or something that a person feels has done them wrong, according to the Encyclopedia of Psychology. Anger isn’t always bad; it offers a way to express negative feelings and can drive you to solve problems.” and noted that sometimes anger can lead to more anger.
The article highlighted American’s anger at the government and at their political parties. I am sure that there are are many other issues which elicit anger in Americans. I know that, today, there are many issues with elicit my anger.
While I think that the article is good as far as it goes and I understand that the author wasn’t interested in how people can master their anger, there is an inherent danger in the article’s headlines.
There are several anger myths, some of which I discuss in my book Beyond Anger Management: Master Your Anger as a Strategic Tool. One of these myths, and the one that the Register article appears to support and perpetuate is that something “makes us angry”.
That something outside of me makes me angry is a myth because each individual “causes”their own anger by how they interpret what is happening to them.
The emotion of anger is a primitive threat detector. As a survival mechanism (which helped us survive as a species), we constantly scan our surroundings for threats. When we perceive a threat we see as one we can go to battle with and overpower, the emotion we experience is anger. It is our perception of a threat that causes our anger The perceived threat elicits (does not cause) the anger. Mastering one’s anger involves assessing the nature of the threat and choosing an appropriate response.
Here is the potential problem with the myth.
If you look at this literally, the implication is that something happens that controls us. How else can one interpret the word “makes”? If something makes me angry, it is a relatively easy step to the next assertion which is that the thing that made me angry, caused me to take whatever action I took to eliminate the “thing” that made me angry.
If I believe that you made me angry, I do not have to take responsibility for the actions I take toward you. I can act out aggressively and blame you for what I did.
We see this when a celebrity attacks his girlfriend and blames her. In another example, Donald Trump disavowed the aggression at his political rally recently but negated his disavowal when he validated the actions of his supporter. If we are such an angry nation as the map in the Register implied, then we should not perpetuate myths that, by implication, allow angry people to avoid responsibility for their actions.
I know that it is entirely possible that most people won’t interpret the article’s headline in this way. However, some (perhaps many) will and, as we have seen, these folks can be problematic.