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.
- 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.
- 1Bi. has the ability to,
- 1Bii. and has the right to,
- 1Biii. and knows how to,
- 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.
- 3B. Try harder.
- 3C. Change to a different plan of action.
- 3D. Change to a different intended outcome Z.
- 3E. Give up.
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!
Copyright © 2004,
Thomas C. Veatch. All rights reserved.
Originally written: November 30, 2004