The term anger has multiple meanings in everyday language. People refer to anger as an experience or feeling, a set of physiological reactions, an attitude toward others, a drive leading to aggression, or an overt assault upon some target. In social psychology, anger refers to a particular set of feelings. The feelings usually labeled as “anger” range in intensity from being irritated or annoyed to being furious or enraged. These feelings stem, to a large degree, from the internal physiological reactions and involuntary emotional expressions produced by an offense or mistreatment.
Visual features include facial changes, like frowning eyebrows and dilated nostrils, and motor reactions, such as clenching fists. These feelings are simultaneously influenced by thoughts and memories (i.e., appraisals) that arise. All of these sensory inputs are combined in a person’s mind to form the experience of anger. This experience is not aimed at achieving a goal; nor does it serve any useful purpose for the individual in that particular situation.
Anger Distinction from Other Concepts
The terms anger, hostility, and aggressiveness are often used interchangeably in everyday life. Social psychologists define hostility as a negative attitude toward one or more people that is reflected in a decidedly unfavorable judgment of the target. To differentiate, aggressiveness is any form of behavior directed toward the goal of harming a target. In other words, aggressiveness can also be seen as a disposition toward becoming aggressive. In sum, anger as an experience does not directly activate aggressiveness.
Physiological Reactions in Anger
A large body of early research has investigated the mental representations of bodily reactions in anger. Across different investigations, individuals experienced increases in cardiovascular (e.g., higher blood pressure) and muscular (e.g., heightened bodily tension) activity, accompanied by the face feeling hot. This latter observation is consistent with the widespread characterization of anger as a “hot” emotion.
Appraisal Conceptions of Anger
Several contemporary researchers started to extend the focus from the internal physiological aspects to interpretations of external features having an impact on affective states. This so-called appraisal-based view of anger contends that anger exists only when external events are interpreted in a specific manner, that is, when individuals give meaning (i.e., appraise) to the specific situation they are in. More specifically, appraisal researchers argue that the precipitating incident has to be interpreted as an offense or mistreatment. Furthermore, whether individuals see themselves or another person responsible, or whether they blame themselves or another person (i.e., appraisal of agency), for the mistreatment triggers either anger experienced toward the self (i.e., self-directed anger) or the other person (i.e., other-directed anger).
There are several theoretical claims of appraisal formulations that emphasize a different appraisal structure and appraisal process. Much research has been dedicated to test these different formulations against one another. Despite these different formulations, what can be derived from this research is that appraisal formulations can indeed account for the experience of anger.
Anger and Behavior
If an individual is angry with someone else, the desire to act feeds into a “moving against” tendency. The phrase “moving against” characterizes the behavioral impulses activated in the state of anger. Research has shown that anger can trigger action tendencies like striking out or attacking the perpetrator responsible for the elicitation of anger. They are expressed, for example, by verbally or even physically attacking a target.
Anger and Health
Besides triggering action tendencies in the short run, anger has been shown to lead to health problems in the long run. This line of research suggests that the experience of anger, which is accompanied by the cardiovascular (e.g., higher blood pressure) and muscular (e.g., heightened bodily tension) activity, is a risk factor for coronary heart disease.
Recognition of Anger
So how do we come to associate specific movements and gestures of someone else with a specific emotional state? Several researchers have proposed different processes of emotional contagion and/or simulation that provide the means by which we come to know what others are feeling. The idea of emotional contagion implies that a visual representation of another’s expression leads us to experience what the other person is feeling, which in turn allows us to infer that person’s emotional state. Furthermore, research has indicated that participants exposed to angry faces show increased activity in specific facial muscles (e.g., by frowning their eyebrows). Thus, these data suggest that emotional faces generally induce their mirror images in their observers.
Anger is often measured as a dependent variable. In this large body of research, individuals are asked to indicate their level of anger. This self-report measure has one main problem: The measure is influenced by the respondent’s perception. Over the years, the focus on investigating emotions has changed, and several assessments have been developed to study different aspects of emotions. There are three main ways to assess the basic processes of anger. First, the physiological arousal (in other words, the excitement of anger) is often measured by heart rate, muscle tension, or skin conductance. Second, the affective state that represents the feelings and signs of anger is assessed by facial coding of the expression. Finally, the external consideration concerning the cause of the affective state put forward by appraisal theorists is measured by asking individuals directly for their interpretations of the current situation.
- Berkowitz, L. (1999). Anger. In T. Dalgleish & M. J. Power (Eds.), Handbook of cognition and emotion (pp. 411-428). New York: Wiley.
- Feldman Barrett, L., Niedenthal, P. M., & Winkielman, P. (Eds.). (2005). Emotion and consciousness. New York: Guilford Press.