We all know anger is bad… right? Generally, it’s unpleasant to feel and it often leads to undesirable outcomes. After all, when was the last time you lost your temper with your boss and was pleased with the outcome?
However, perhaps you can also think of times when anger wasn’t so bad. Perhaps, in some contexts, feeling angry was actually beneficial. This counterintuitive idea was pursued by researchers Matthijs Baas, Carsten De Dreu, and Bernard Nijstad in a series of studies recently published in The Journal of Experimental Social Psychology. They found that angry people were more likely to be creative – though this advantage didn’t last for long, as the taxing nature of anger eventually leveled out creativity. This study joins several recent lines of research exploring the relative upside to anger – the ways in which anger is not only less harmful than typically assumed, but may even be helpful (though perhaps in small doses).
In an initial study, the researchers found that feeling angry was indeed associated with brainstorming in a more unstructured manner, consistent with “creative” problem solving. In a second study, the researchers first elicited anger from the study participants (or sadness, or a non-emotional state) and then asked them to engage in a brainstorming session in which they generated ideas to preserve and improve the environment. In the beginning of this task, angry participants generated more ideas (by volume) and generated more original ideas (those thought of by less than 1 percent or less of the other participants), compared to the other sad or non-emotional participants. However, this benefit was only present in the beginning of the task, and eventually, the angry participants generated only as many ideas as the other participants.
These findings reported by Baas and colleagues make sense, given what we already know about anger. Though anger may be unpleasant to feel, it is associated with a variety of attributes that may facilitate creativity. First, anger is an energizing feeling, important for the sustained attention needed to solve problems creatively. Second, anger leads to more flexible, unstructured thought processes. This flexibility involves the use of broad and inclusive categories and the increased ability to find new connections between categories. People who feel angry (vs. sad, for example) are less likely to think in systematic ways, and are more likely to rely on broad, global cues when judging information. This kind of global processing tends to be associated with literally seeing the “bigger picture.”
These findings join the growing body of work showing that negative emotions, like anger, may have beneficial effects in our daily lives. This work, however, is usually accompanied by caveats – anger is not likely to be beneficial in any and all contexts. Rather, anger is likely to be beneficial only in certain situations, or for certain people. Supporting the situation-sensitive nature of the benefits of anger, research I was involved in found that angry people were more likely to perform better in a negotiation, but only when that negotiation was confrontational in nature. Indeed, in these studies, we found that in situations in which anger is likely to be useful – like a confrontational negotiation – participants actually wanted to feel angry and took steps to foster this emotion within themselves.
Supporting the person-sensitive nature of the benefits of anger, another paper recently published in Psychological Science reported that angry people were actually perceived as better leaders, but only when leading people who were less sensitive to conflict. This finding suggests that successful relationships may depend on the alignment between the emotional natures of the partners, even if this alignment involves the experience of anger. Overall, these lines of research demonstrate that anger isn’t all bad news. Rather, feeling angry may be downright beneficial, depending on what one is trying to achieve or whom one is trying to impress.
Are you a scientist who specializes in neuroscience, cognitive science, or psychology? And have you read a recent peer-reviewed paper that you would like to write about? Please send suggestions to Mind Matters editor Gareth Cook, a Pulitzer prize-winning journalist at the Boston Globe. He can be reached at garethideas AT gmail.com or Twitter @garethideas.