What is Anger? A definition and some consequences

(This is a first draft, your comments and counterexamples are welcome)


Reassessment of a plan (3C,D,E) is only justifiable if the cost of a re-attempt (3A, 3B) is higher than the cost of reassessment, for example if one's plan of action is really not going to work, but in many cases all it takes for a plan to succeed is to keep trying or to try harder. Options 3A and 3B do not require reassessment of the plan of action; choosing them may be very reasonable. Therefore P may quite normally simply repeat the attempt or push harder. And in many cases, pushing a little harder on an effective plan actually accomplishes the sought-for change. In some cases, it does not.


In the failed cases, the conditions 1 and 2 still hold, and 3A and/or 3B may optionally have been attempted; the engaged commitment to bring about Y remains.

This circumstance is called "anger".

Consequences of this definition include the normality of anger, a range of effective (though not all desireable) strategies to avoid anger, and personal characteristics which can be expected to be correlated with increased anger.

The Normality of Anger

It follows from the definition here that anger is not separable from the normal process of doing things in the world, because some things naturally in the course of things take a little extra pushing to get done, and some things don't even get done with a little extra pushing, and the process of thinking about and discovering that one doesn't actually have one or more among the ability, the right, and knowledge of the effective path, to get it done, generally can only occur *after* some counter-evidence to those assumptions is discovered, which is only after the first two steps of 1) trying it, and then 2) pushing at least a little harder if it doesn't work. One often cannot make the discovery that a plan of action is not working without it actually not working, and pushing a little harder is well within the (often-)justifiable range of actions encompassed within a single reasonably-intended plan. That is, anger is a natural consequence of having intentions and carrying out actions in an only-somewhat-cooperative world. Indeed, one cannot fail to ever have anger unless one has a completely cooperative world, or unless one never has the intention to do anything.

Strategies to avoid anger

Strategies to avoid anger include the negative strategies of learned helplessness, abandonment of the belief that one has the right or ability to carry out changes in one's own or any situation, and avoidance of even trying hard to carry out one's intentions, as well as the positive strategies of becoming more flexible and observant in case a plan of action one is carrying out might require modification in order to be successful given that the situation is not quite as malleable as initially believed. One can be more observant both about the characteristics of the situation and one's leverage therein, and also about one's own emotional activation level such that one realizes more quickly that one is activated and pushing perhaps too hard on something, so as to take that information itself as a clue to review the situation and the plan and perhaps make some change.

Correlates of anger

So more frequent or intense anger should be correlated with greater singleness of purpose, greater inflexibility of determination, unperceived overambitiousness, increased contrast between expected and observed personal capability, and increased sensitivity to clues that indicate a difference between expected and observed personal capabilities (related to but different from learned helplessness). One is not angry if one is merely frustrated (helpless and emotionally withdrawn from the commitment to act); anger requires the active intent and engagement as an actor in the situation to make things change to the intended situation.


Is P necessarily an agent in the situation? That is, does P necessarily have a plan of action, and is P engaged in the actions to carry out that plan? It seems not, since one can be angry upon reading the news of a faraway circumstance.

What is the role of emotional activation in anger? Is it necessary that emotional activation be included in the definition? Or can it be reduced to a mere derived consequence? Calm, determined action, with repetition of re-attempts 3A and 3B in the same plan of action, subscribing the belief that many re-attempts may be normally necessary, would seem to constitute mere inflexible, unimaginative diligence rather than anger per se.

If at the point of 1+2+3A+3B, P considers that there is no 3C possibility, no realistic or effective alternative, and if in addition P is not able to change or abandon his or her emotional commitment to Y via 3D or 3E, then P is evidently both committed to Y and consciously helpless to achieve it. Can this circumstance constitute the definition of "frustration"?

What is the role of a set, or even a hierarchy, of alternative plans, goals, needs, or intentions? Achieving Y may be part of a larger plan, goal, need or intention, and the failure to achieve Y may therefore also constitute failure to achieve such a larger outcome.

Remaining at 1+2+3A+3B without changing to 3C|3D|3E may not be due to P's failure to reconsider his approach, but may be due instead to an assessment that no effective alternative path 3C exists and to a reaffirmation of the intention which must needs be abandoned to consider 3D or 3E. For such reassessment and reaffirmation to proceed without exploring alternatives is definition of "inflexibility". However, one may be quite flexibly explore many alternatives, yet find none effective, or one may upon reassessment find even more good reasons to remain committed to the outcome Y.

Comments and counterarguments are most welcome!

I invite your reactions.

Copyright © 2004, Thomas C. Veatch. All rights reserved.
Originally written: November 30, 2004