A Theory of Anger

..in which its existence is questioned..


1/25/2023. In the theme of logical decomposition of emotions, here is mine on anger, from 11/30/2004. Note how anger is normal, non-pathological; how it depends on a context of goal orientation, depends on a hierarchy of backoff strategies to achieve one's goals; depends on continued commitment to one's goals; all this is learnable, negotiable. The current standard of care for interacting with angry people (withdrawal) is itself pathological and destructive. Here:


Anger cannot occur without a context. 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 (1C fails), the conditions 1A, 1B, 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, 1A+1B+2+3C, is called "anger". 3A,B optionally co-occur with anger but 3D,E do not co-occur as they remove the commitment.

11/2021: People seem to hate this idea, considering it to be an emotionally bleached, merely logical schema; however, the emotional commitment, engagement, determination in 1B is hardly emotionally bleached, and the thought-to-be-missing emotional activation level is necessarily, naturally associated with -- because supportive of -- a frustration (¬1C), repetition (3A) or amplification (3B) of goal-oriented behavior -- that is, this scenario exactly. Critics considering this emotionally bleached have not truly considered the logic in the first place, or falsely believe that emotion has no logic.

Summary of Consequences

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. Dear 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. One could engage in a 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. But this 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.

What is called "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. Anger is normal.

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 that one is carrying out might require modification in order to be successful now that the situation has been found to be less malleable than 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, reduced abilities to achieve a given goal, 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

The failure of one's goal-directed method relates to another hierarchy, a hierarchy of alternative methods or skills, which offer options at step 3C. 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. Pulse rate up, blood pressure up, jerky movements, face red, violence more likely. 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 root, the very root of the tree, to solve every problem and meet every need.

When one's tree of methods, one's menu of known options, to get goals 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 wonder.

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 frustrated, eventually everyone will back up to this universal method, because there it is, at the root of everyone's tree of problem solving methods.

Responding to an Angry Person

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 destructive.

2/2021: Withdrawal constitutes an escalation to an actual emotional hostility, which can be more significant than physical violence, and which causes relationship damage and emotional pain to your partner. Perhaps all they wanted was to communicate with you, while you, by withdrawing, are choosing to make their goal impossible, which is 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. Not wise.

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, loss of trust, and relationship rupture. Don't do it.

Take-Home Message

The present standard of care for anger in a relationship, withdrawal, is unnecessarily, and very, destructive. People typically but wrongly choose to disengage rather than listening to their "angry" partners (where they falsely consider anger be emotional activation plus danger, because they don't understand the goal-connected context, 1,2,3). No! 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.

2023/04/16. Better yet: help out by first expressing sympathy and understanding. Not if you are also angry -- perhaps condescendingly willing to teach and correct but actually unwilling to sympathize or in too much hurry or too dominant/dismissive to accept the other's needs or goals -- if you are unsympathetic to that activated confused one, well, that doesn't seem to work very well. The indicators of cooperativity, the signs of hope in the interaction, are absent. Raise your diplomatic skill level.

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 be 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.

What is "inflexibility"? Remaining at 1+2+3A+3B without changing to 3C|3D|3E may not be due to P's failure to reconsider his or her 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 able to 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!

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Copyright © 2004, 2021, Thomas C. Veatch. All rights reserved.
Modified: November 30, 2004, November 4, 2021.