Anger cannot occur without a context.
- 1. A person, P, in a certain situation X:
- 1A. seeks for the situation to be a certain other way, Y (different from X), that is,
- 1Ai. intends that Y come about, and
- 1Aii. is emotionally committed to bringing about Y, and.
- 1B. believes that he or she can, that is,
bring about the change to Y, and
- 1Bi. has the ability to,
- 1Bii. and has the right to,
- 1Biii. and knows how to,
- 1C. believes that Y is being brought about, whether through P's actions or not.
- 2. But P observes that Y does not come about.
- 3. At this point, P has various choices of how to respond:
- 3A. Try again: Repetition.
- 3B. Try harder: Effort.
- 3C. Change to a different plan of action: Tactics.
- 3D. Change to a different intended outcome Z: Strategy.
- 3E. Give up.
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. So the context is that P is looking at point 3C and
considering what to do.
This circumstance, 1+2+3C, is called "anger". 3A,B optionally
co-occur with anger but 3D,E do not co-occur as they remove the
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 relationship with tantrum
behavior also follows from this definition. Improved best practices,
quite different from the current, destructive, relationship standard
of care, also follow from this definition. Reader, we can improve the
world by understanding and sharing this theory, and helping others to
use a more helpful, a better way of responding to angry people.
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 the
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, what is called "anger" is
simply 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
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 instead be due 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 the very 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.
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, greater
sense of entitlement, 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.
Tantrum as Universal Backup Method
A sophisticated adult has a richly populated decision tree of skills
and backup methods to achieve any goal. If one method doesn't work,
there's a backup method. There are many ways to skin a cat, it has
been said, and as many ways to plumb a house as there are plumbers.
And a good plumber knows a lot of other ways to try, if one doesn't
work out. For example. But an infant or two-year-old may have only
one method, that of making as much noise, and displaying as much
emotional distress, as may be necessary to get the attention and
cooperation of his or her caregiver, without which, after all, the
baby will die. No preverbal infant can speak to explain its needs, it
must depend on the puzzle-solving, or empathetic, or telepathy-like
capabilities of its caregiver, and to engage those may require
considerable noise and performance of distress. And it's true: noone
wins a fight with a two year old. And every adult, that is, everyone
who ever once was a two year old, has deep in their tree of all
goal-achieving action methods, the knowledge that noise and distress
and thrashing about while aiming at the goal, is ALWAYS a trump card,
will always win the argument, will always assure compliance. When
they were two, it always did. So yes it was a winning strategy, and
there it sits on the tree of possible skills and methods, deep at the
very root of the tree.
Now when a person P in the condition 1+2, having tried their known
backup skills in 3C usually including 3A and 3B, and depending on
their sophistication a variety of other approaches, and still can't
achieve Y, then they can always back up to use their universal two
year old method, screw up their face, make loud noises, and thrash
about. People think this is anger, but no, this is just the universal
backup method to achieve your aim. Not a good one, not a
sophisticated one, but the last one, and maybe if you're not very
sophisticated or skilled you might go there early. But if changing
your goal (3D) or giving up (3E) is not on the table, that is, you
remain determined, but frustruated, eventually everyone will back up
to the universal method.
Responding to Anger
How to respond? To respond to an angry person ought not be to
immediately and by default withdraw to remote safety at the least sign
of "anger", under the generally false and excessive expectation of
danger and violence. Sometimes, okay, but such cases are
unbelieveably rare, considering how many minor squabbles we all get
into. But that is the current cultural standard of care, and maybe in
extreme cases with quite toxic, gun-toting relationship partners it is
correct, but generally speaking it is the worst, the least
constructive solution imaginable. Excessive withdrawal destroys the
path to a solution and damages the relationship.
The right thing to do is get right up into the face of the angry
person, and try to understand what they are trying to do, and to help
them. If their goal is communication, then Listen. If their goal is
unachieveable, then help them to find a new goal (3D) or to stop
caring (3E). If you have an idea that could help, explain it, to help
them now and in future.
But if their goal is communication with
you, and you withdraw, then you are taking the worst possible
approach, creating the least constructive environment for future
cooperation, teaching them to go to 3D and 3E: to no longer want to or
care about communicating with you, which means to no longer care about
you at all. If that's not your goal, then be aware that withdrawal,
even when seemingly justified by your fear, can be very
Added 2/2021: Withdrawal is an escalation to an actual
emotional hostility, which can be more significant than physical
violence, which causes relationship damage and emotional pain to your
partner. All they wanted was to communicate with you, while you, by
withdrawing, are choosing to obstruct and thus hurt them. First you
falsely construct their goal-seeking and actually-connecting behavior
as relationship-damaging behavior. Then you damage the relationship
by your withdrawal, which actually shows that you prefer to obstruct
and hurt, than to connect with, your partner.
This is not just analogous to, but actually the same as, a caregiver
who ignores the crying baby. The baby learns the caregiver is not
reliably there (developing anxious attachment) or reliably not there
(developing avoidant attachment), and thereafter the relationship will
have that quality which they just learned. If you want your angry
loved ones to become avoidant or anxious about your relationship with
them, go ahead and do that. But it won't be good for either of you.
It's a recipe for escalation and relationship rupture. Don't do it.
The improved standard of care is to engage: understand P's goal Y,
diagnose their tactics, method, or skill, and help them to achieve
their goal in one way or another, or to change to a different goal.
Everything will be better: they will calm down right away, your
relationship will be strengthened, they will become stronger, learning
how to handle it in the future, they will be grateful. And you will
be safer, more connected, more knowledgeable about your partner, and
more courageous and capable yourself.
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, about which one is doing,
and can do, nothing. The contexts 1A-3E and definition of anger
were written carefully so as not to require P being an agent.
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. This circumstance seems to define
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.
The failure of the method also impacts another tree, a hierarchy of
alternative methods or skills. When one's tree of options to get that
goal achieved starts looking less and less populated, and the
possibility of having to back up to the universal backup method, the
decompensating tantrum, gets closer and closer, then the person might
begin to worry, to carry out its remaining options with concern and
anxiety and extra effort, which might seem precursors to the full
two-year-old regression. The loss of self-competency may lead the
person to become activated, because it cuts at the root of their
self-image. And self-image has an important role in emotional
regulation (cf. bliss theory), so no
The standard of care for anger in a relationship is unnecessarily, and
very, destructive. People typically but wrongly choose to disengage
rather than listening to their seemingly angry partners. Listen!
Engage! It's the right thing to do. If you withdraw, you cause much
greater and unwarranted damage. If instead you can engage and help
meet or reevaluate their purpose, you will suddenly not have an angry
person on your hands, but a connected and grateful partner. So choose
a little bit of courage, where you can.
Comments and counterarguments are most welcome!