Is Anger the Emotion of the 21st Century?

May 25 2017

“Anger makes dull men witty, but it keeps them poor” - Elizabeth I

Why is there so much anger in the world today? Anger has been cited as playing a part in the often strange and surprising politics of the last year (by myself among others), and only today I switched on the news to see that a Republican candidate for US Congress has “body-slammed” a reporter. What is anger and why is it so prevalent?To answer the second question, Pankaj Mishra has recently published Age of Anger: A history of the present in which he looks into past history to explain present-day. He argues that the increasing appeal of strong men (and women as in the UK) and demagogues, along with increasingly violent wars and terrorism, is because we have been for a long time deluded that the rationalism and humanism of the Enlightenment have permanently replaced human’s more innate impulses and behaviours.

Steven Pinker’s The Better Angels of our Nature devotes more than 800 pages to explain that violence is in long-term decline across the world, but sometimes it doesn’t feel like that. Sigmund Freud wrote in 1915, “primitive, savage and evil impulses of mankind have not vanished in any individual” indicating that they could rise up again and Friedrich Nietzsche identified “ressentiment” as a driver of such primitive behaviours and outbursts.

Ressentiment is caused by an intense mixture of envy, humiliation and powerlessness and its meaning is not simply resentment as understood in English, but reflects the rise of modern, secular and commercial societies and the values that have developed with them. Pankaj Mishra argues that this is driving the rise of figures like Trump and Modi who speak over the heads of mainstream media and channel people’s anger at scapegoats.

Robert Solomon argues that resentment is directed at those of a higher status than ourselves, while anger is directed people of equal status and contempt at those of lower status. This also implies that when societies become more equal, then anger will rise and resentment and contempt will decrease (and the opposite when they become more unequal).

What is anger? Anger seems automatic and primal, and Seneca called it, “the most hideous and frenzied of all the emotions” and “a brief insanity”. However, anger is more often the result of a judgement or appraisal of a situation and is strongly bound up in culturally-specific conventions and social rules about behavior. Anger goes beyond the detection of a person or threat in the environment to a more cognitive interpretation of how that might affect us.

The purpose of anger is to divert or defuse any threat, and Robert Plutchik argues that it is a signal for us to “take back control” (to use a popular catchphrase) or hit back in order to assert ourselves and solve problems or remove anything that gets in the way of us achieving an important goal. Of course, anger has the downside of making us hot-headed and resentful. These outcomes are not usually achieved by resentment, contempt, irritability, hatred, loathing and any number of related emotions. Plutchik also shows the different intensities of anger from annoyance to rage, and the ability of anger to be passive (i.e., sulking or giving someone the cold shoulder) or more active (including sometimes self-destructive behavior).

Anger is associated with strong emotions and facial reactions and is probably the most studied emotion in psychology. Anger is seen in the face as a contraction of the pupils, opening wide of the eyes, sometimes flashing of the eyes, flaring of the nostrils, compression of the lips, frowning and flushing of the face. Darwin also observed increased heart rate, accelerated breathing, holding the head erect, expansion of the chest, squaring of the elbows, clenching of the fists, vasculation in the forehead and neck, inclination of the body forward (towards the threat), clenching or grinding of the teeth, gesticulation of the arms, harsh vocalization, aphasia, rapid and agitated speaking, frothing at the mouth, retraction of the lips and sometimes exposing the canine tooth on one side of the face. That’s a whole lot of very physical reactions!

The many metaphors for anger point to both active and passive anger and its relationship to aggression, and while anger is often associated with aggression, it can occur without it, in behaviours like bullying or killing prey for food. We can boil with anger or smoulder in slow-burning anger, we can be insane with rage or unleash our anger and we can carry anger around (like a burden) or be a pain in the neck. Anger is very often described like a hot fluid in a container, fire or heat, insanity, wild or captive animals and as a natural force.

Unlike fear (click here), anger is much more about display, often preparing us for aggression and communicating to others a willingness to fight and stand our ground. Even young babies show anger, for example when physically constrained from moving. Carol Tavris argues that anger does have many benefits, in particular making us understand the need for change, but that this can come at a cost. Anger can damage relationships and inevitably sometimes brings about retaliation. Angry people may be unpopular and socially unattractive. Most worryingly, the very act of being angry can cause greater anger in a dangerous virtual cycle.

Many cultures have unique words to describe different aspects of anger and related emotions. For example, in Sanskrit, the word abhiman is used to describe the pain and anger caused when someone we love hurts us, causing sorrow and shock as well as bruising our pride.

Robert Plutchik describes rage as an extreme and intense form of anger. In modern times, rage is more frequently used, embracing terms such as road rage, air rage and trolley rage as well as technostress. These terms all refer to the impact of the modern world on our inner psychological states. Is modern anger (or rage) really the result of ressentiment or does it simply reflect a more stressful and perplexing environment and a culture that places too many burdens on us to manage, compete and win? Are we living in the age of anger or the age of rage?


The Expression of the Emotions in Man and Animals by Charles Darwin

Emotions Revealed: Understanding faces and feelings by Paul Ekman

Emotional Rollercoaster: A journey through the science of feelings by Claudia Hammond

“Faces of the Week” by Dan Hill at

Metaphor and Emotion: Language, culture, and body in human feeling by Zoltan Kovecses

Emotion: Pleasure and pain in the brain by Morten Kringelbach and Helen Phillips

Age of Anger: A history of the present by Pankaj Mishra

The Better Angels of our Nature: A history of violence and humanity by Steven Pinker

Emotions and Life: Perspectives from Psychology, Biology, and Evolution by Robert Plutchik

Anger: The misunderstood emotion by Carol Tavris

A Natural History of Human Emotions by Stuart Walton

The Book of Human Emotions: an encyclopedia of feeling from anger to wanderlust by Tiffany Watt Smith

2 responses so far

  1. Kudos to the writer of this article.

    You have, in a concise and direct way, described and captured the nature of anger as an emotion without giving in to a popular misconception that anger is a “negative” emotion.

    I like that you have discussed the many ways anger can be displayed including passive and active. This is not often touched upon by people who write about anger.

    You clearly imply that, while it may take many forms, the emotion of anger, at its core, has evolved to prepare us to deal with a perceived threat with some level of “force”.

    I also like your discussion of resentment, anger, and contempt and how they are impacted by status and culture.

    A very good article.

    Ed Daube, Ph.D.
    Author of Beyond Anger Managment: Master Your Anger as a Strategic Tool (Amazon)

  2. Ed

    Thanks for reading - I’m glad. you enjoyed the post.


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