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Anger never solved anything – or did it?
Recently published research suggested that being angry can act as a key motivator in enabling us to reach our goals.
If you ask someone about their goals in life they may give you a variety of answers – to be successful in a career, to own their own home, or to travel the world, for example. However, one thing that is a common thread in these answers is to be ‘happy’. The pursuit of happiness is widely regarded by society as a ‘desirable state of being’. However, recently released research highlights that emotions that may be perceived in a more negative manner, such as anger, may also have a key role to play in the pursuit of success.
A functionalist view of emotion suggests that ‘emotions are adaptive responses to the environment’ (Kelter and Gross, 1999). For example, feeling sad indicates to you that you may need to seek help from others, whereas feeling fear may help us to avoid something that could possibly cause us harm.
Anger can be defined as ‘the strong feeling that you have when something has happened that you think is bad and unfair’ (Oxford English Dictionary) so what function could such an emotion have which could be helpful to us?
Researchers in the field of emotion believe that anger enables us to overcome obstacles and challenges that may stand in our way by taking action.
To study this concept, Lench et al (2023), conducted a range of experiments to investigate how a person’s emotional state influenced the outcome of several tasks including difficult word puzzles and a skiing video game (with one game being challenging and requiring participants to avoid obstacles and one game being easier with participants being required to complete a ski jump). In a series of experiments, participants were shown visual stimuli (a slideshow of images) designed to make them experience a particular emotion (anger, neutral, amusement, desire, sadness) and then completed a task.
The results of Lench et al’s study indicated that, across all experiments, participants who were made to feel anger achieved their goals more successfully in comparison to those experiencing a neutral emotional state. This included being more successful at solving difficult word puzzles and having an increased score on a challenging skiing video game (there was no effect of anger on the easier skiing game).
It appears from this study that anger has an important role to play when tested in highly controlled laboratory conditions, but what about in real-life situations? As part of Lench et al’s study, surveys of the 2016 and 2020 presidential elections were conducted. People were asked to rate how angry they would be if their favourite candidate was unsuccessful. After the elections, they were asked whether they had voted and who they had voted for. Participants who had said they would be angry if their candidate did not win were more likely to vote in the election, reflecting that anger also appears to play a role in directing behaviour in an everyday setting.
In summary, it appears that anger has an important role to play in achieving our goals when faced with challenging situations. It may be that rather than a societal focus on positive emotions, a recognition that a range of emotions can be helpful depending on the situation may be more helpful.
Read more about the research mentioned in this blog and consider the following questions:
- Dr. Paul Eckman identified six basic emotions: anger, surprise, disgust, fear, enjoyment, and sadness (he recently added a seventh of ‘contempt’) – according to the functionalist account of emotions what do you think the purpose of each one of these emotions might be?
- How could we use this research to help people to achieve their goals?
American Psychological Association website (accessed 2.11.23) Want to achieve your goals? Get angry (apa.org)