The Real Roots of American Rage | The untold story of how anger became the dominant emotion in our politics and personal lives—and what we can do about it.
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 otherwise avoid.
1. 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?”
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 wrongdoers 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.”
“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.”
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