A Model for the Purpose of Anger

Troy Todd, Ph.D., BCN

It is valuable to comprehend anger as a tool. Anger is manifest as either physical or verbal aggression. Usually, it is directed at the object or person that is denying the person, or assumed to deny the person, a resource. The resource can be physical, emotional, or experiential. The need or perceived need is usually based in a legitimate physical or emotional need.

The animal model may be useful to understand better how anger is a tool. If an animal is in its marked territory, with its mate and offspring eating food that it expended energy to acquire, and a competing animal enters the territory, attempts to eat the food, kill its offspring, or acquire its mate, the threatened animal will likely communicate the intent to use aggression, and may even physically aggress towards the competing animal to preserve its resources, which will likely result in the preservation of its territory, mate, offspring, and/or food. If the animal does not communicate or use aggression, the competing animal will likely obtain its resources and the animal will be forced to expend more energy to re-obtain the resource. Likewise, if a competing animal is in need of a resource, such as food, and notices another animal with food, it may communicate the intent to aggress or actually aggress towards that animal. This could allow the animal to obtain the necessary resource, with, perhaps, less of an energy expenditure than would be required to obtain the resource on its own (in the example, the other animal has already gathered the food, so the competing animal would not have to expend energy to do that). Thus, in the animal model, aggression is often a less costly means by which to obtain or preserve necessary resources than other alternatives.

In humans, the tools of aggression or expression of anger is also seen as a less costly way to preserve and obtain resources. With humans, however, the use of it actually has costly side effects. This is because humans have emotional and social needs and the use of aggression often alienates other humans, which are the primary source of these needs. The use of aggression may work to obtain physical resources, but it is often inadequate in obtaining emotional or experiential needs.

For example, a person may feel unappreciated by their spouse. They may not be aware that this is why they feel bad. Since this is the experience of a basic emotional need being unmet, aggression may be shown towards the spouse in order to compel them to meet the need. This may be the typical pattern in the relationship so the spouse provides some facsimile of this actual need to the “requesting” spouse, which may be in the form of an argument. Since the aggression provided some type of reaction, the person may feel somewhat satisfied, so they may be likely to use the method of aggression again. Unfortunately, the continual use of aggression to compel the spouse to provide a reaction may result in the alienation of the spouse and therefore a reduced filling of this need over time.

A more productive method of acquiring resources requires a relatively high level of awareness and skill. This requires elements of self-awareness to understand the exact nature of the needed resources, awareness of other people’s ability and willingness to supply the need, and assisting in the providing for the needs of others through negotiation, so that they are more able and willing to provide the requested need.