Anger in conflict

I conducted a poll on social media recently, asking people which emotion they found the most challenging to deal with in conflict, and about half the respondents said it was anger.

When we think about conflict, one of the main emotions that springs to mind is anger. Anger may lead to conflict arising. It may also affect how conflict is managed, whether it is resolved, or whether it escalates.

In multi-party conflict, anger may affect not only whether an agreement is reached, but with whom. Anger may communicate toughness, but people may avoid forming a coalition with those who express anger in harmful ways.

The effects of anger differ across situations, with anger sometimes eliciting competition, sometimes eliciting cooperation, and sometimes having no effect. The effect of anger depends on many factors, which I will discuss further below.

Defining anger

I need to start our discussion of anger with the warning that this is a very Western view of this category of emotions.  Other cultural views of anger are quite different in how they are experience, describe, and express anger, and what is seen as an appropriate response to anger.

For an excellent discussion about anger and how it can vary across cultures, Batja Mesquita’s book Between Us is an essential resource. She explains that anger is seen as “right” in some cultures and situations, particularly in cultures in which individuals strive for self-esteem and independence. However, in more collective cultures, in which adjusting to the wishes and activities of the community is prioritised, anger is considered the most “immature” emotion.

Anger is a category of emotions – within that category there are infinite varieties of different instances of anger in different situations and with different physiological and behavioural responses. The category of anger includes instances of emotion that range from mild irritation to full-blown rage.

Some researchers distinguish between trait anger and state anger. Trait anger is when anger has become part of a person’s personality or emotional profile, so the person is particularly prone to feeling anger in a variety of situations.  State anger is anger that is triggered by a specific situation, and can be experienced by a person who is not normally prone to anger.

Anger is usually caused by events that the person thinks of as negative, and is usually experienced as an unpleasant emotion (most people would prefer not to feel angry).  However, anger can involve both pain and pleasure, for example sometimes the prospect of getting retribution feels good.

Anger in conflict

Evolutionary psychologists believe that anger evolved specifically as a tool to allow people to win conflicts!

“Anger evolved in the service of bargaining, to resolve conflicts of interest in favour of the angry individual.”  Aaron Sell

Anger used in this sense is a powerful tool to get what you want. However, this can backfire, and the short-term benefits may be outweighed by the longer-term harm (for example, the person to whom you displayed anger may give you what you want right now, but refuse to negotiate with you again in the future).

How can anger be helpful?

Anger can have positive outcomes, where it is used in the right way at the right time for the right reasons.

Anger can act as a useful signal that something is amiss. Anger as a signal may be helpful to the person experiencing the anger, who might have been unaware of their value-commitments and their fragility. Anger can also be helpful as a signal to others, as a kind of exclamation point that draws attention to a violation.

Because anger occurs when desires are blocked, anger may orient individuals toward positive outcomes, motivating them to work towards their goals.  In this way, anger often comes with a sense of optimism and determination that you will be able to get the desired thing if you try hard enough, producing increased effort to achieve the desired outcome.

Anger may also be useful as a deterrent. People who are known to get angry often deter others from infringing on their rights.

Anger can often provide short term gains (for example, motivating someone who is the target of anger to do what the angry person wants) but there are frequently long term detriments. 

Let’s consider some of the downsides of anger.

How can anger be detrimental?

An individual instance of anger may be adaptive in the short run (a person gets their way following an angry outburst) but maladaptive in the long run (the target of an angry outburst avoids them in the future).

Individuals who are confronted with an angry opponent tend to develop a negative impression of the opponent, become angry themselves, and be unwilling to interact with the opponent again.

Anger can also have negative consequences on the individual experiencing the anger, irrespective of the response from others. For example, an angry person may focus their energy and attention on harming the perceived target of their anger, rather than engaging in constructive activities to work towards their goals.

This is a good example of how anger can sometimes make people less analytical and more reflexive in their decision making.  Angry people will often behave in ways that are not in their best interests.

This is a good example of how anger can sometimes make people less analytical and more reflexive in their decision making.  Angry people will often behave in ways that are not in their best interests.

There is so much we could go into on this topic, and this is just a brief overview. There’s a longer lesson on anger and conflict in my online Working With Emotions in Conflict course. In that lesson we also consider how to regulate anger and how to express it appropriately, as well as strategies to work with other people’s expressions of anger. Later lessons also specifically consider how to work with anger in specific processes such as negotiation and mediation. Find out more here: https://www.conflictmanagementacademy.com/wwe-online/

You may also be interested in a FREE Webinar I’m running on Wednesday 7th September on the topic Understanding Anger in Conflict. You can register here: https://www.conflictmanagementacademy.com/webinar-understanding-anger-in-conflict/

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