Chapter 9: Anger

Cognitive Appraisals

In this section, we will discuss the cognitive appraisals associated with anger.  The information discussed in this section is relevant to the eliciting events that cause anger, as well.  Why?  Because our cognitive appraisals can include our perception of the eliciting events that caused anger.  After reviewing Scherer’s (1997) study, we will discuss some social psychological theories that explain the causes of anger.

Scherer’s (1997) Study

Scherer’s (1997) study found universal and cultural differences in cognitive appraisals.  For a review of Scherer’s (1997) study, go to the modern theories section on cognitive appraisals.  Means (see Table 5), collapsed across all world regions, show that participants reported the following appraisals when recalling an anger experience: unexpected, unpleasant, goal obstruction, perceived unfairness, external causation, perceive that one does not need to cope, slightly immoral, and no change in self-esteem.  Figure 6 displays the cross-cultural differences in cognitive appraisals for anger.  In Figure 6 the presence of a circle around a datapoint indicates that the country with the circle showed means significantly different from the mean of the remainder of the sample.  Unfairness and immorality showed cultural differences.  African countries viewed anger as higher in unfairness and immorality, while Latin American participants reported anger to be caused by something moral.

Table 5
Mean Changes in Cognitive Appraisal Dimensions for Anger

A table showing cognitive appraisal dimensions, the mean or average, a question, and a response scale for the question.
Cognitive Appraisal Dimension Mean Question Response Scale
Expectedness 1.43 Did you expect this situation to occur? 1 = not at all; 2 = a little; 3 = very much
Unpleasantness 2.90 Did you find the event itself pleasant or unpleasant? 1 = pleasant; 2 = neutral; 3 = unpleasant
Goal obstruction 2.55 Did the event help or hinder you to follow your plans or achieve your aims? 1 = it helped; 2 = it didn’t matter; 3 = it hindered
Unfairness 2.52 Was the situation unjust or unfair? 1 = not at all; 2 = a little; 3 = very much
External Causation 2.28 Who you think was responsible for the event? 1 = self/internal; 2 = close persons/external; 3 = other persons/external; 4 = impersonal agency/external
Coping Ability 3.23 How did you evaluate your ability to act on or to cope with the event and its consequences? 1= powerless; 2 = escape possible; 3 = pretend nothing happened; 4 = no action necessary; 5 = could positively influence event and change consequences
Immorality 2.20 Would this behavior itself be judged as improper or immoral by your acquaintances? 1 = not at all; 2 = a little; 3 = very much
Self-Esteem 1.77 How did this event affect your self-esteem? 1=negatively; 2= not at all; 3 = positively

Adapted from “The Role of Culture in Emotion-Antecedent Appraisal,” by K.R. Scherer, 1997, Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 73(5), p. 905, 911 ( Copyright 1997 by the American Psychological Association.


Figure 6
Eight Cognitive Appraisal Ratings for Anger across Six World Regions
6 world regions graphed as lines for eight cognitive appraisal ratings for fear. There are eight emotions listed on the x axis: Expect, Unpica, Goal Abs, Unfair, Ext cause, coping, Immor, self-consciousness. Z scores are represented on the y axis, starting at -0.75, and increasing in intervals of .25, to the maximum of 0.75.
Note. Presence of a circle around a datapoint indicates that the country with the circle showed means significantly different from the mean of the remainder of the sample. Adapted from “The Role of Culture in Emotion-Antecedent Appraisal,” by K.R. Scherer, 1997, Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 73(5), p. 912, ( Copyright 1997 by the American Psychological Association.


Dollard and colleagues (1939) Frustration-Aggression Hypothesis

 Dollard et al.’s (1939) Frustration-Aggression Hypothesis views frustration as the eliciting event of anger.  A frustration is “an unexpected external blockage of an anticipated goal attainment” (Berkowitz, 1981, p. 59).  A frustration has the same meaning as Scherer’s (1997) goal obstruction appraisal.  Aggression is defined as a behavioral response to the frustration with the goal to hurt a person or animal.  Dollard and colleagues view aggression as hostile, but also suggest the target of our aggression could be the person who caused the frustration OR a more vulnerable target who did not cause the aggression.  Dollard and colleagues emphasized that our perception of a frustration caused aggression.  In other words, the main cognitive appraisal is that we PERCEIVE something blocked our goal.  In their definition of frustration, we can identify a couple other cognitive appraisals – unexpected and external causation.  Thus, according to Dollard and colleagues, the frustration is not foreseen, and we cannot cause our own anger – something outside of us causes the frustration.

Dollard and colleagues also discussed the determinants of the intensity of anger/aggression:

  • The greater the reward that was thwarted, the greater intensity.
  • How much the frustration interfered with the goal – if we received partial gratification – received part of the goal, then our anger will be less intense.
  • Goal-Gradient Principle: the closer we are to reaching the goal, the greater intensity.
  • The more frustrations we experience, the greater the intensity. For an example, watch the Angry Elf clip below.  In this clip, the elf continues to insult an individual, who eventually becomes rageful!

The Angry Elf

Dollard and colleagues also discussed behavior changes of anger.  They differentiated between direct and displaced anger.  In both direct and displaced anger, we approach a target.  In direct anger, we aggress toward the individual or thing that caused the frustration.  In displaced anger, we approach a lower status or more vulnerable target, such s a child or a pet.  Why would we exhibit displaced anger and not direct anger?  Well, directly approaching a target who is stronger or more dominant than us could result in harm to us or even death!  Second, sometimes the person who blocked our goal is not in the same physical space or sometimes we may not know who caused the frustration.

 The Frustration-Aggression Hypothesis is important because it was one of the first social psychological theories to discuss how goal blockage causes anger and aggression.  But, as with all theories, some criticism of this theory exists.  First, this theory focused on hostile aggression, where the goal is to injure another person.  Researchers point out that all aggression is not a direct result of frustration, as in instrumental aggression.  Critics also point out that not every frustration causes anger – we can be frustrated and not show aggression or anger.  Anger researchers, such as Berkowitz (1989, 1993, 2012), also state that goal obstruction is not a required cognitive appraisal for anger.  Berkowitz suggests that simply feeling unpleasant can increase the likelihood of anger and aggression.

Next, we discuss studies that have identified other cognitive appraisals for anger.


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