Chapter 9: Anger

Not Every Frustration Causes Anger

Burnstein and Worchel (1962) conducted an experiment to show that a goal blockage is not a required eliciting event or cognitive appraisal for anger.  In their study, the independent variable had three conditions: 1) frustration is justified, 2) frustration is not justified, and 3) no frustration control condition.  In the study, groups of participants worked on a problem-solving task together.  During their group work, a confederate disrupted the problem-solving task.  In the frustration is justified condition, the confederate blamed his group interference on a hearing defect, while in the frustration is not justified, the confederate did not have a good reason for interrupting the task. In the control condition, participants were not interrupted by a confederate.  At the end of the study, the participants were asked to evaluate the confederate.  To evaluate the confederate, participants select one or more of the following three ways:

  1. Public Rejection with Punishment: Public negative evaluation in front of group
  2. Private Self-Report with punishment: Low scores on the self-report and confederate will be removed from group.
  3. Private Self-report, without punishment: Low scores on the self-report, but no punishment

Option 1 represents the greatest aggression, while option 3 represents the least aggression.  The punishment was removing the confederate from the group.  On the self-report, participants rated whether the confederate was liked and had contributed.  Results are displayed below in Table 6.

Participants exhibited the greatest aggression when the confederate did not have a good reason for interfering with the group project.  This finding is demonstrated by 29% of the participants selecting the greatest form of aggression (i.e., public rejection), and 100%  selecting private rejection with punishment.  Note that 0% of the frustration justified group selected the most severe aggression – public rejection.  In this group, when the confederate had a hearing defect, most participants selected to privately aggress on the self-report (50%) and a smaller number (27%) selected the moderate form of aggression – private rejection with punishment.  In conclusion, this study shows us that simply experiencing a frustration does not result in overt aggression.  Instead, experiencing a frustration that is deliberately caused by another causes the most aggression.

Table 6
% of participants who aggressed toward the confederate (Burnstein & Worchel, 1962)

A table showing IV condition, Frustation Not Justified (no hearing defect), Frustration Justified (hearing defect), and Control
IV Condition Frustration Not Justified (no hearing defect) Frustration Justified (hearing defect) Control
Public Rejection with punishment 29% 0% 0%
Private Rejection with punishment 100% 27% 0%
Private Rejection without punishment 100% 50% 0%

Adapted from “Arbitrariness of frustration and its consequences for aggression in a social situation,” by E. Burnstein, and P. Worchel, 1962, Journal of Personality, 30(4), p. 533 ( Copyright 2016 by the American Psychological Association.


Other Cognitive Appraisals

Some other cognitive appraisals that cause anger have been suggested.  Experiencing a drop in self-esteem, such as after someone insults us, might cause anger (Lazarus, 1991, as cited in Berkowitz, 2012).  The experience of anger would motivate us to re-establish our self-esteem.  Perceiving that a decision is unfair also may cause anger.  In fact, some work is suggesting that perceptions of unfairness combined with high perceptions of control (we can do something about the unfairness), causes anger and approach behavior.  But perceptions of unfairness and low perception of control (we can’t do anything about the unfairness), causes sadness. Another cognitive appraisal may be personal significance.  This means that the frustration must block our own goals to cause anger.  Yet, some people point out that we can be angry when something happens to our close other.  So, maybe it depends on how close we are to the person who experiences the goal blockage.

In the literature, these is disagreement about whether an external causation is required for anger.  Theorists such as Dollard, Lazarus, and other appraisal theorists believe the eliciting event must be external to the self.  Yet, others, such as Berkowitz and Anderson disagree.  Internal changes in our body, such as pain, heat/cold, bad smells, headaches, and hunger may make it more likely we experience anger.  Let’s talk about a study that can help us understand!

Similar to our last study, in this study (Geen, 1968) participants worked on jigsaw puzzle with a confederate posing as a participant.  The independent variable included three conditions:

  1. Condition #1: confederate disturbed the participants
  2. Condition #2: puzzle unsolvable
  3. Condition #3: Control: no interruption from the confederate

In condition 1, participants’ cognitive appraisal would have been external – the confederate is preventing them from completing the puzzle.  In condition #2, the cognitive appraisal would be internal causation – it’s something about me that is preventing the completion of the puzzle (maybe we attribute it to IQ).  In Group 3, there is no frustration.  To measure the dependent variable, participants were given an opportunity to shock the confederates (similar to Milgram’s classic study).  The dependent variable was a measure of aggression – with greater levels of shock indicating greater aggression.

Level of shocks selected were significantly different among the three conditions.  Participants in the external causation group selected the greatest level of shock, followed by condition 2, and condition 3.  Thus, experiencing an external cause of frustration causes the GREATEST level of aggression.  But, making an internal attribution for our anger (it’s something about me!  My intelligence or effort!) causes us to aggress toward a target too!  Said simply – blaming the self for the frustration causes us to experience anger too.

Now, these findings suggest we can cause our own anger.  But some researchers argue over whether we can direct our anger toward the self.  Some people believe shame is the emotion we experience when we are angry at the self.  Shame occurs when we evaluate our entire, global self as a bad person.  Shame, in fact, is positively correlated with anger (Tangney et al., 1992) suggesting that shame may be a word we use to describe anger toward the self.  Guilt is negatively correlated with anger (Tangney et al., 1992).

Perceptions of Control

Perception of control, or perceived coping ability, is another cognitive appraisal linked to anger.  One study (Harmon-Jones et al., 2003) has linked these perceptions to frontal asymmetry.  In this study, participants listened to a radio message arguing for a tuition raise. The independent variable was whether or not participants perceived they could cope and do something to prevent the tuition raise.  In the action possible condition, participants were asked to sign a petition to prevent the tuition raise.  In the action impossible condition, participants were told they could not prevent the tuition raise.  The dependent variables were: 1) left hemisphere cortical activity, and 2) self-reported willingness to sign the petition.  Remember, that the approach-withdrawal hypothesis suggests the left side of the brain is activated for  approach emotions, like anger (go here for a review). Figure 7 displays the findings.

Figure 7
Left Front Cortical Activity for Participants (Harmon-Jones et al., 2003)
A bar graph. 3 sets of bar graphs are plotted, one for each minute after the radio editorial (minute 1, minute 2, minute 3). This is also the label of the x axis (minutes after hearing radio editorial). There is an action-possible (blue) bar, and a Action-impossible (red) bar in each of the 3 sets. the y axis is labeled - Relative Left Frontal Cortical Activity, and starts at -0.02, increases in increments of .01, to a maximum of 0.05. Min 1, action-possible bar, 0.038. min 1, action-impossible bar, -0.005. Min 2, action-possible bar, 0.037. Min 2, action-impossible bar, .004. Min 3, action-possible bar, 0.029. Min 3, action-impossible bar, 0.008
Adapted from “Anger, coping, and frontal cortical activity: The effect of coping potential on anger-induced left frontal activity,” by E. Harmon-Jones, J. Sigelman, A. Bohlig, and C. Harmon-Jones, 2003, Cognition and Emotion, 17(1), p. 14 ( Copyright 2003 by Psychology Press Ltd.

In this figure, the y-axis represents the change from baseline of left front cortical activity. The x-axis displays how much time had passed in the radio editorial. Only participants in the action-possible condition (sign the petition!) showed activity in the left cortex. Interestingly, participants in both conditions reported the same amount of anger. These findings show that when approach is possible during a goal obstruction, our left cortex is activated, suggesting we are experiencing an approach emotion. A downside to this study is that they did not measure right cortical activity, which may have been activated for the action-impossible condition.


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