The Psychology of Anger (Part 1 of 4)

Why are Some People Angrier than Others? 

According to Jerry Deffenbacher, Ph.D., a psychologist who specializes in anger management, some people really are more ‘hotheaded’ than others, becoming angry more easily and more intensely. There are also those who don’t show their anger in loud or spectacular ways but are chronically irritable and grumpy. Easily angered people don’t always curse and throw things; sometimes they withdraw socially, sulk, or get physically ill. 

People who are easily angered generally have what some psychologists call a ‘low tolerance for frustration,’ meaning simply that they feel that they should not have to be subjected to inconvenience or annoyance. They can’t take things in stride, and they’re particularly infuriated if the situation seems somehow unjust: for example, being corrected for a minor mistake. What makes some people this way? 

A very popular explanation these days is physical. ‘My brain chemistry makes me angry.’ However, there’s little proof that physiology alone can make people exceptionally angry. Observing what’s going on in the brain when somebody is angry, as some research seeks to do, doesn’t necessarily prove that one’s brain cells are the cause of one’s anger. 

The other common explanation is environmental and familial. In other words, people who are exposed to poorly managed anger as children become that way as adults. What I see as a therapist, however, is that family background is not as influential as many assume it is. Some people exposed to poorly handled anger become that way themselves; but just as many either become ‘under angry’ (i.e., conceal their anger) or rationally angry as adults. For better or worse, people tend to become their own individuals. Some become like their parents because they feel that it suits them; others react against their parents; others carve out an identity that is neither like their parents nor a simple reaction against them.

The crucial factor to examine is cognition, or thinking. The cognitive factor refers to the ideas and assumptions people hold, both consciously and subconsciously, which determine the kinds (and degrees) of angry feelings they will have. Feelings, after all, are nothing more than ideas in a different form. When you feel something, your mind is expressing a thought in an automatic, emotional way.


It’s important to understand that a lot of anger originates as frustration. People who are impatient tend to become frustrated more easily. Before long, the frustration turns into anger. The anger then can become displaced onto people who don’t understand the anger. A man who is frustrated by slow traffic, for example, will become more irritated than the situation warrants. Looking at the traffic situation rationally, he could have left sooner; or he could play music to pass the time constructively; or he could simply accept that this is how it is and there’s nothing he can do about it. Instead of having internalized this reality perspective, the angry man has internalized the following kinds of ideas:

‘I should be able to get where I want to go quickly, without others getting in my way.’

Not true. If you choose to live in an area that’s popular, more and more people will move there. The very things that make you like the location make others like it too. It’s good for you in that it promotes economic development; it’s bad in that it gets too crowded.

‘I shouldn’t have to wait, period.’

Simply not realistic. Not in the nature of reality. A childish sentiment, pure and simple.

‘The roads should be built better than they are.’

In many cases, they arguably can and should be. But they’re not, and reality has to be dealt with on that level. A ‘should’ does not automatically generate an ‘is.’

In his frustration over the way things are, the frustrated man becomes angry. If he happens to have a friend or wife in the car with him, he might become angry with her. This is called displaced anger because the anger isn’t really about her; it’s about the road. He might also become angry with his wife because she doesn’t seem angry enough to him about the traffic. In fact, she might say something to him like, “Calm down. There’s nothing we can do about it.’ A more rational person also might not like hearing this, but will realize it’s valid and will become calmer. An angry man will simply get angrier, partly at the wife for not (in his eyes) feeling his pain enough.

 Continued in Part 2 tomorrow.