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Inside Your Brain’s Complicated Relationship With Anger

Anger does not look, act, or feel like other negative emotions. Therein lies its power

By | Markham Heid |

Writing nearly 2,000 years ago, the Roman philosopher Seneca described anger as “fundamentally wicked” and fit only for suppression. The doctrinal texts of Christianity, Judaism, and Islam tend to take a similarly dim view of anger, which they often list among man’s principal shortcomings.

“Traditionally, anger has been looked at as negative,” says Philip Gable, PhD, an associate professor of psychological and brain sciences at the University of Delaware.

Gable has studied the way anger influences the brain and behavior. He says that, by and large, people report that the experience of being angry is unpleasant — at least in retrospect. Of course, anger is also an emotion that fuels aggression, rage, violence, and hate. For all these reasons, most psychologists today categorize anger as a negative emotion.

That may be selling anger short. “It can certainly get us into trouble, but anger also plays a functional role for us,” Gable says. Anger can pump up positive feelings such as confidence, pride, and determination. “It can also motivate us to engage in constructive behaviors, and it can focus our attention on a problem,” he says. It’s not an exaggeration to say that anger supports some of humankind’s noblest and most altruistic tendencies — including our willingness to fight against injustice.

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