The untold story of how we all got so mad at one another
I. An Angry Little Town
Soon after the snows of 1977 began to thaw, the residents of Greenfield, Massachusetts, received a strange questionnaire in the mail. “Try to recall the number of times you became annoyed and/or angry during the past week,” the survey instructed. “Describe the most angry of these experiences.” One woman knew her answer: Recently, her husband had bought a new car. Then he had driven it to his mistress’s house so she could admire the purchase. When the wife found out, she was livid. Furious. Her rage felt like an eruption she couldn’t control.
The survey was interested in the particulars of respondents’ anger. In its 14 pages, it sought an almost voyeuristic level of detail. It asked the woman to describe the stages of her fury, which words she had shouted, whether punches had been thrown. “In becoming angry, did you wish to get back at, or gain revenge?” the survey inquired. Afterward, did you feel “triumphant, confident and dominant” or “ashamed, embarrassed and guilty”? There were also questions for people like her husband, who had been on the receiving end: “Did the other person’s anger come as a surprise to you, or did you expect that it would occur?”
Greenfield, population 18,000, was an unusual place to plumb these depths. It was a middle-class town with a prosperous tool-and-die factory, where churches outnumbered bars two to one. Citizens were private and humble, and—except for a few recent letters to the editor lamenting that the high-school hockey team had been robbed in the playoffs—the town showed little evidence of widespread resentment. In fact, this very placidity was why Greenfield had been chosen for the study.
The author of the questionnaire was James Averill, a psychology professor at the University of Massachusetts at Amherst. Averill was a gentle soul, the kind of man who had once returned to a grocery store to apologize to a cashier after becoming annoyed over miscounted change. But he was convinced that his academic colleagues misunderstood anger. He had attended many conferences where researchers had described it as a base instinct, a vestige from our savage past that served no useful purpose in contemporary life. “Everyone basically thought anger was something that mature people and societies ought to suppress,” Averill told me. “There was this attitude that if you were an angry person, you ought to be a bit embarrassed.” In journal articles and at symposia, academics described anger as a problem to be solved, an instinct with little social benefit. “But that didn’t really make any sense to me,” he said.
Despite his genial disposition, Averill had been known to mutter angrily when a driver cut him off. He felt bursts of indignation on a regular basis, as did everyone else he knew. And though he rarely acted on these impulses, he suspected that anger wouldn’t be lurking in his psyche unless it served some important purpose. “When something’s bad for us, we usually get rid of it through evolution or social codes. But anger has been a part of humanity for as long as we’ve been alive,” he said. “It’s in the Bible and novels and plays. It’s one of the most common emotions people say they feel.”
Averill decided that the best way to understand anger was to survey ordinary people—people who get upset at their co-workers, who yell during rush hour— about their experiences. He went looking for an average town and found Greenfield. He figured if he could show that its citizens, despite their contentedness, still experienced occasional bouts of fury, it would be a wake-up call to other researchers that more scrutiny of anger was due.
Averill’s expectations were modest. He assumed that most Greenfield residents would say they only infrequently lost their temper. He expected respondents to confess that they were embarrassed afterward, and that, in retrospect, their paroxysms had only made things worse. In fact, he figured most people would toss the questionnaire in the trash.
Then the survey from the aggrieved wife arrived. Other replies soon began flooding his mailbox, so many that Averill had trouble reading them all. “It was the best-performing survey I’ve ever conducted,” he told me. “Some people even attached thank-you notes. They were so pleased to talk about being angry.” The replies contained un anticipated responses: The betrayed wife, it turned out, wasn’t all that upset about the mistress— she had harbored suspicions for years, and to be frank, if another woman was willing to put up with her husband, more power (and sympathy) to her. But how dare he show her the new car first?
Other respondents described more mundane arguments, over who ought to take out the trash, or curfews for teenagers, or snappish tones at the dinner table. People were eager to talk about their daily indignations, in part because they felt angry so frequently. “Most people report becoming mildly to moderately angry anywhere from several times a day to several times a week,” Averill later wrote, summing up his research in American Psychologist.
Most surprising of all, these angry episodes typically took the form of short and restrained conversations. They rarely became blowout fights. And contrary to Averill’s hypothesis, they didn’t make bad situations worse. Instead, they tended to make bad situations much, much better. They resolved, rather than exacerbated, tensions. When an angry teenager shouted about his curfew, his parents agreed to modifications— as long as the teen promised to improve his grades. Even the enraged wife’s confrontation with her unfaithful husband led to a productive conversation: He could keep the mistress, as long as she was out of sight and as long as the wife always took priority.
In the vast majority of cases, expressing anger resulted in all parties becoming more willing to listen, more inclined to speak honestly, more accommodating of each other’s complaints. People reported that they tended to be much happier after yelling at an offending party. They felt relieved, more optimistic about the future, more energized. “The ratio of beneficial to harmful consequences was about 3 to 1 for angry persons,” Averill wrote. Even the targets of those outbursts agreed that the shouting and recriminations had helped. They served as signals for the wrong doers to listen more carefully and change their ways. More than two-thirds of the recipients of anger “said they came to realize their own faults,” Averill wrote. Their “relationship with the angry person was reportedly strengthened more often than it was weakened, and the targets more often gained rather than lost respect for the angry person.”
Anger, Averill concluded, is one of the densest forms of communication. It conveys more information, more quickly, than almost any other type of emotion. And it does an excellent job of forcing us to listen to and confront problems we might other wise avoid.
Subsequent studies have found other benefits as well. We’re more likely to perceive people who express anger as competent, powerful, and the kinds of leaders who will overcome challenges. Anger motivates us to undertake difficult tasks. We’re often more creative when we’re angry, because our outrage helps us see solutions we’ve overlooked. “When we look at the brains of people who are expressing anger, they look very similar to people who are experiencing happiness,” says Dacher Keltner, the director of the Berkeley Social Interaction Lab. “When we become angry, we feel like we’re taking control, like we’re getting power over something.” Watching angry people— as viewers of reality television know—is highly entertaining, so expressing anger is a surefire method for capturing the attention of an otherwise indifferent crowd.
In the years after his survey, Averill watched as anger studies became the focus of academic specialties and prestigious journals. In 1992 alone, social scientists published almost 25,000 studies of anger.
Then, in early 2016, Averill was watching newscasts about the presidential primaries. The election season had barely started, and the Republican field was still crowded. Governor Nikki Haley of South Carolina, giving the Republican rebuttal to President Barack Obama’s final State of the Union address, took a subtle jab at one of her party’s candidates—a clownish figure the establishment hoped to marginalize. “During anxious times, it can be tempting to follow the siren call of the angriest voices. We must resist that temptation,” Haley told voters. “Some people think that you have to be the loudest voice in the room to make a difference. That’s just not true.”
Soon afterward, reporters swarmed Donald Trump to ask how he felt about such a public renunciation. “Well, I think she’s right, I am angry,” Trump told CNN. “I’m angry, and a lot of other people are angry, too, at how incompetently our country is being run.” Trump continued: “As far as I am concerned, anger is okay. Anger and energy is what this country needs.”
As Averill watched, he felt a shock of recognition. Everyone believed Trump would be out of the race soon. But Averill wasn’t so sure. “He understands anger,” he thought to himself, “and it’s going to make voters feel wonderful.”
America has always been an angry nation. We are a country born of revolution. Combat—on battlefields, in news papers, at the ballot box—has been with us from the start. American history is punctuated by episodes in which aggrieved parties have settled their differences not through conversation, but with guns. And yet our political system was cleverly designed to maximize the
beneficial effects of anger. The Bill of Rights guarantees that we can argue with one another in the public square, through a free press, and in open court. The separation of powers forces our representatives in government to arrive at policy through disagreement, negotiation, and accommodation. Even the country’s mythology is rooted in anger: The American dream is, in a sense, an optimistic reframing of the discontent felt by people unwilling to accept the circumstances life has handed them.
Recently, however, the tenor of our anger has shifted. It has become less episodic and more persistent, a constant drumbeat in our lives. It is directed less often at people we know and more often at distant groups that are easy to demonize. These far-off-targets may or may not have earned our ire; either way, they’re apt to be less invested in resolving our differences. The tight feedback loop that James Averill observed in Greenfield has been broken. Without the release of catharsis, our anger has built within us, exerting an unwanted pressure that can have a dark consequence: the desire not merely to be heard, but to hurt those we believe have wronged us.
We have learned a great deal about anger since Averill began studying it, and for all its capacity to improve our lives, it can also do great harm. The scholarship of Averill and his successors shows how ordinary anger can be sharpened, manipulated, and misdirected—and how difficult it is for us to resist this process. Under certain conditions, the emotion can transform from a force that helps keep society knitted together into something that tears it apart.
Lately, evidence of anger’s destructive power is everywhere. Witness the confirmation hearings of Supreme Court Justice Brett Kavanaugh, in which the nominee and his Republican backers in the Senate denounced the proceedings in red-faced diatribes. “This is the most unethical sham since I’ve been in politics,” Republican Senator Lindsey Graham shouted at his Democratic colleagues. “Boy, y’all want power. God, I hope you never get it.” On the midterm campaign trail, former Attorney General Eric Holder offered a revision of Michelle Obama’s high-minded credo from just two years earlier. “When they go low, we kick ’em,” he said. “That’s what this new Democratic Party is about.”
It’s tempting to lay the blame for this devolution at the feet of the current president. Trump has vilified Democrats, immigrants, the media, the left-leaning philanthropist George Soros. This fall, we witnessed the real-world effects of such bellicose rhetoric: Pipe bombs were mailed to Soros and several other prominent Democrats, and a shooting in Pittsburgh left 11 people at the Tree of Life synagogue dead. Both accused assailants engaged in hateful online speech before under taking their horrific acts.
Those attacks were perpetrated by violent extremists. But on both the left and the right, a visceral disdain for one’s political opponents has become common, as have feelings of schadenfreude when the other side suffers a setback. In 2012, political scientists at Emory University found that fewer than half of voters said they were deeply angry at the other party’s presidential nominee. In 2016, almost 70 percent of Americans were. What’s worse, this partisan nastiness was also directed at fellow citizens who held opposing views. In 2016, nearly half of Republicans believed that Democrats were lazy, dis honest, and immoral, according to the Pew Research Center. Democrats returned the favor: More than 70 percent said that “Republicans are more closed-minded than other Americans,” and a third said that they were unethical and un intelligent.
Trump made the most of this animosity during his campaign, as Averill predicted he would; he has mastered the levers of emotional manipulation better than any of his political opponents. But our predicament predates the current president. In 2001, just 8 percent of Americans told Pew they were angry at the federal government; by 2013, that number had more than tripled. If we diagnose our anger problem as merely a Trump problem, we’ll be sorely disappointed when he eventually departs public life and we remain enraged.
To avoid that fate, we have to appreciate how anger works. Ordinary anger can deepen, under the right circumstances, into moral indignation—a more combustible form of the emotion, though one that can still be a powerful force for good. If moral indignation persists, however—and if the indignant lose faith that their anger is being heard—it can produce a third type of anger: a desire for revenge against our enemies that privileges inflicting punishment over reaching accord.
We are further down this path as a nation than you may realize, but it’s not too late for us to reverse course. If we can understand anger’s mechanisms, we might find a way to turn our indignation back into a strength.
II. Righteous Rage
In the mid-1960s, California residents, if they happened to look at the back pages of their local newspapers, were likely to see a smattering of articles about a small group of angry grape pickers. At the time, much of the nation’s focus was on the civil-rights movement in the South, where Martin Luther King Jr. and others were making difficult but steady progress toward ending Jim Crow. In the agricultural fields of Central California, however, where much of the nation’s fruit and vegetables were harvested, there was little cause for hope.
For more than half a century, various labor associations had struggled to organize the men, women, and children who toiled in California’s sunbaked fields. About 250,000 workers—many of them migrants from Mexico and the Philippines, some in the country illegally and unable to speak English— plucked grapes and picked asparagus stalks in punishing heat. Foremen had standing instructions to fire the slowest workers at the end of each day, so pickers raced through fields and, lacking toilets, relieved themselves in the dust.
When unions did manage to organize the itinerant laborers, they had limited success at the negotiating table: Workers sometimes undermined their own demands by returning to the fields as soon as bosses made minor concessions. Many of the laborers were too poor and too hungry to mount the types of sustained demonstrations that were remaking the South. Even labor organizers themselves settled for incremental change. The Agricultural Workers Organizing Committee—an offshoot of the nation’s largest federation of unions, the AFL-CIO—had no patience for soaring oratory and spiritual fellowship. “This is a trade-union dispute,” the director, Al Green, told his followers. “Not a civil-rights movement or a religious crusade.” In 1965, Green’s group had signed up 4,500 laborers.
Among some workers, however, there was chatter about a new leader. Cesar Chavez was a migrant himself; he had traveled as a child to California from Arizona after his family lost their home. He began working in the fields after finishing the eighth grade, picking peas in winter, cherries in spring, and cotton come fall. Chavez had been drawn into organizing by a series of injustices; in one, police in Salinas Valley had arrested a Mexican teenager, questioned the boy for more than 20 hours, and then charged him, with little evidence, for the murder of a white high-school football player. Chavez spent his days stacking lumber, and nights and weekends registering voters. Eventually he created his own organization, the National Farm Workers Association. The group published a newspaper named El Malcriado, which roughly translates to “The Problem Child.” Meetings, one participant later recalled, “were like revivals,” with impassioned speeches, songs, and prayers. At one, workers promised, with a hand on a cross, to never break a strike.
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