Chapter 7: Anger and Aggression
Understanding Anger: Theories and facts
Anger in intimate relationships
Disliking others without valid reasons: Prejudice
Integration: Is it reducing racial prejudice?
Methods for handling our own anger/aggression
Dealing with an aggressive person
If you are a victim of violence or bullying
Social-educational solutions to violence
Anger and Aggression
This chapter will provide (1) signs of anger, (2) theories about how and why
aggression develops, and (3) means of preventing or coping with anger (in
yourself and in others).
IntroductionAn Overview of Anger
How we deal with stress, disappointments, and frustration determines the
essence of our personality. In this chapter we consider frustration and
aggression. Anger may do more harm than any other emotion. First of all it is
very common and, secondly, it upsets at least two people--the aggressor and
the aggressed against. There are two problems: how to prevent or control
your own anger and how to handle someone aggressing against you. This
chapter attends more to self-control.
The overall effects of anger are enormous (Nay, 1996). Frustration tells us
"I'm not getting what I want" and eventually anger is related to violence,
crime, spouse and child abuse, divorce, stormy relationships, poor working
conditions, poor physical health (headaches, hypertension, GI disturbances,
heart attacks), emotional disorders, and so on.
Just how widespread is hostility? Very! Psychology Today (1983) asked,
"If you could secretly push a button and thereby eliminate any person with no
repercussions to yourself, would you press that button?" 69% of responding
males said yes, 56% of women. Men would most often kill the U. S. president
or some public figure; women would kill bosses, ex-husbands or ex-
boyfriends and former partners of current lovers. Another survey of college
students during the 80's indicated that 15% agreed that "if we could wipe out
the Soviet Union, and be sure they wouldn't be able to retaliate, we should do
it." That action could result in over 100 million deaths! The respondents
seemed to realize the great loss of life because 26% said, "the United States
should be willing to accept 25 million to 50 million casualties in order to
engage in nuclear war." What an interesting combination of intelligence and
mass violence in the same species. In light of the subsequent disintegration
of the Soviet Union, this kind of pugnacious, arrogant, uncaring thinking is
really scary. The problem was an unwillingness to carefully consider the
atrocities of nuclear warfare plus a macho toughness engendered by the
1980s Cold War rhetoric.
For reasons I hope to soon make clearer, Americans are amazingly violent compared
to people in other countries. In 2002, approximately 290 million Americans suffered
23 million crimes. 23% of those crimes were crimes of violence. For every 1000
people over 12, there was one rape or sexual assault, another assault resulting in an
injury, and two robberies. Yet, criminal violence is fairly predictable (not at some
specific time but in general) in the sense that 50% of males convicted of a crime
between 10 and 16-years-of-age will be convicted of more crimes as adults. Also,
being exposed to violence in childhood (at home, in their community, & in the
media) is associated with the child having poor health (Graham-Bermann & Seng,
2005) and with them being violent as an adult. We could do something about these
things but we dont, perhaps because we believe aggression is just human nature
and/or because we are angry and thus indifferent to stressed kids, especially if they
are of another race or a different economic or ethnic group. Also, our society is far
more insistent on punishing rather than preventing adolescent
violence/crime/misbehavior (another reflection of our own anger?).
Great atrocities are attributed to crazed men--Hitler, Stalin, terrorists, etc.
But, several psychological studies cited in this and the next chapter suggest
that ordinary people can rather easily become evil enough to discriminate
against, hurt, and brutalize others. Likewise, Goldhagen (1995) has
documented that ordinary Germans by the thousands rounded up and
executed millions of Jews. It isn't just the prejudiced and deranged that
brutalize. There is scary evidence that almost all of us might, under the right
conditions, develop a tolerance or a rationalization for injustice. Even the
most moral among us may look the other way (certainly the many murderers
in Germany and Russia talked to priests, ministers, town officials, etc.).
German doctors performed atrocious experiments in concentration camps.
Each of us strongly resist thinking of ourselves as potentially mean or bad,
yet there is evidence we can be persuaded to do awful things by leaders and
governments. Interestingly, we have little trouble believing that others are
bad and immoral. Storr (1994) attempts to explain intense human hatred and
cruelty to others, such as genocide and racial or religious conflict. Concerning
hatred, we are psychologically still in the dark ages.
The crime rate soars in the U.S. and our prisons overflow; infidelity and
spouse abuse are high; 1 in 5 women has been raped, 683,000 women were
raped in 1990 (30% were younger than 11!); our murder rate is several times
higher than most other countries. We are prejudiced. We distrust and dislike
others. Even within the family--supposedly our refuge, our safe place, our
source of love--there is much violence. Between 1/4 and 1/2 of all wives have
been physically battered which causes great psychological trauma too
(Goodman, Koss, & Russo, 1993). Physical fights have occurred within 12-
16% of all marriages during the last year. In 50% of these instances it is
mutual violence, i.e. both try to beat up on the other. But children 3 to 17 are
the most violent: 20% per year actually abuse their parents; 93-95% are a
"little physical" with parents. In addition, last year 10% of children were
dangerously and severely aggressive with siblings. Nearly one third of us fight
with our siblings. About 25% of all murders are by teenagers. There are 1.2
million cases of child abuse per year. Pogrebin (1983) even says we are a
child-hating society but that overlooks the vast majority of children who are
loved, even pampered.
One of the most appalling statistics is that among women who die while
pregnant or within one year of pregnancy, 30% are murdered (Chang, Berg,
Saltzman & Herndon, 2005). The percentage is a little higher in young teen
women (especially black) who have not gotten good prenatal care. A similar
study by The Washington Post found that 2/3rds of these murders involved
domestic violence. Many were slain at home by husbands, boyfriends, or
lovers. In spite of our TV preoccupation in early 2005 with the Laci Peterson
case, we arent doing much about helping women during this stressful period
in their lives. By the way, this statistic in the US reminds one of the high
murder rates reported among married Indian women who have not produced
a boy baby. We will discuss violence within the family later in this chapter.
One in eight high school students are involved in an abusive "love"
relationship right now. 40% of youths have been in a fight in the last year;
10% were in four or more fights last year. 25% of young males have carried
a weapon at least one day in the last month (of that 25%, 60% carried a
knife and 25% a gun). Boys and men are much more likely to carry a weapon
than a female, but don't assume that only men act violently. Recent studies
suggest that college (not high school) women are more likely than men to
kick, push, bite, and slap in anger, especially when they are jealous. Hostile,
aggressive young people tend to come from broken, angry, violent homes.
Violence comes in many forms and in many situations. On the extreme end of the
scale, there are mass murderers, serial killers, terrorism, wars, rape and sexual
violence, domestic violence, parent-child or sibling violence, violence by psychotics
and people with antisocial personality disorders, child physical and sexual abuse, and
ethnic or religious groups or nations that go to war. I do not intend to imply that
these acts are similar. Im simply pointing out the wide diversity and regrettable
frequency of violence. Since the 9/11/2001 attack on the World Trade Center Towers
in New York City, there has been a lot of attention on preventing violence by
terrorists (mostly by capturing or killing the terrorists first) but little serious research
has been done to further our understanding of the causes or prevention of angry
aggression. (Levin & Rabrenovic, 2004, provide a sociological view and discuss ways
small groups have reduced hatred). Much research is needed.
Of course, anger isnt only expressed in horrendous eventsit is a part of everyday
life. A survey of 6,000 families published by the British government (Flouri, E., 2005)
found that 89% of children born in 1958 were never or only sometimes irritable.
Most children were mild mannered but boys were more commonly rated by their
mothers as frequently irritable than girls between 5 and 12. Moderately angry
children do not necessarily become angry young adults. Anger seems to wane with
age. When these children get into their 20s and 30s, the angry women slightly
outnumber angry males. Angry young adults have more health problems and are
less likely to have gotten married. Among the more extreme consistently angry
children, they remain more angry and dissatisfied with life in their 30s than their
less angry peers in childhood.
There are many efforts to measure and predict violence (Quinsey, Harris, Rice, &
Cormier, 1998; Spielberger, 2005; search a search engine), but mostly in maximum
security and psychiatric institutions. Much better measures and ways to predict
violence are needed. Knowledge about how to reduce aggression in many situations
is even more needed.
Among the more fascinating findings is a measure called the Finger Length Ratio,
calculated by dividing the length of the second finger (the index finger) by the length
of the usually longer fourth finger (the ring finger). This ratio is generally smaller for
males than for females, indicating males ring fingers are longer relative to their
index finger than is true of females. In males and females, this ratio using the right
hand has been found to be related to the amount of testosterone available to the
fetus early in pregnancy. Studies have also found that men with smaller digit ratios
are judged as more masculine and better in physical sports. In addition, the finger
length ratio in males has been found to be related to certain psychological test
scores, especially physical aggression. That relationship between the second and
fourth fingers, reflecting early prenatal conditions, is believed to be an even better
predictor of physical aggression than a males current adult level of testosterone. The
finger ratio, however, did not predict anger, hostility, or verbal aggression, only
physical aggression. Likewise, finger length ratio in women does not correlate with
any of these anger measures (Bailey & Hurd, 2005). Please note: The relationships
found in this study based on about 140 subjects are not strong and reliable enough
to be used to make individual predictions of physical aggressiveness using a persons
index finger being shorter relative to his ring finger. Yet, this is an amazing finding
indicating the distant but important early prenatal influence on adult personality
traits. This measure is just one small factor influencing physical aggression. Such a
finding should remind us to not expect human behavior to be simple and easy to
Definition of Terms
We will study more about how anger develops. Is it innate? Certainly most
three-year-olds can throw a temper tantrum without any formal training and
often even without observing a model. Is it learned? Why are the abused
sometimes abusers? Does having a temper and being aggressive yield
payoffs? You bet. How do we learn to suppress aggression? How can we learn
to forgive others?
Anger can be the result of hurt pride, of unreasonable expectations, or of
repeated hostile fantasies. Besides getting our way, we may unconsciously
use anger to blame others for our own shortcomings, to justify oppressing
others, to boost our own sagging egos, to conceal other feelings, and to
handle other emotions (as when we become aggressive when we are afraid).
Any situation that frustrates us, especially when we think someone else is to
blame for our loss, is a potential trigger for anger and aggression.
So, what is frustration? It is the feeling we get when we don't get what
we want, when something interferes with our gaining a desired and expected
goal. It can be physical (a flat tire), our own limitations (paralysis after an
accident), our choices (an unprepared for and flunked exam), others' actions
(parental restrictions or torturing a political prisoner), others' motives
(deception for a self-serving purpose), or society's injustice (born into poverty
and finding no way out).
Anger is feeling mad in response to frustration or injury. You don't like
what has happened and usually you'd like to get revenge. Anger is an
emotional-physiological-cognitive internal state; it is separate from the
behavior it might prompt. In some instances, angry emotions are beneficial; if
we are being taken advantage of, anger motivates us to take action (not
necessarily aggressive) to correct the situation. Aggression is action, i.e.
attacking someone or a group. It is intended to harm someone. It can be a
verbal attack--insults, threats, sarcasm, or attributing nasty motives to them-
-or a physical punishment or restriction. What about thoughts and fantasies in
which we humiliate or brutally assault our enemies? Is that aggression? What
about violent dreams? Such thoughts and dreams suggest anger, of course,
but are not aggression as I have defined it here.
An important new term has come into use: Indirect Aggression (Heim, Murphy, &
Golant, 2003). This is where gossip or rumors are spread about someone or where a
person is left out, shunned, or snubbed. This behavior has been shown to be more
common among girls because girls, in general, are more eager than boys to be
accepted into their social group and to have close personal relationships. Having bad
things said about you or being neglected or avoided is very hurtful to a teenage girl.
Sometimes it is called Relational Aggression because it is designed to hurt certain
relationships in the group and build other contacts. It is a way to manipulate
relationships and create excitement. Viewing indirect aggression on TV increases this
kind of action by the viewer. Heim, Murphy and Golant are experienced in the
business world and discuss indirect aggression by women in the corporate America.
While aggression is usually a result of anger, it may be "cold" and
calculated: for example, the bomber pilot, the judge who sentences a
criminal, the unfaithful spouse, the merchant who overprices a product, or the
unemotional gang attack. To clarify aggression, some writers have classified it
according to its purpose: instrumental aggression (to get some reward, not to
get revenge), hostile aggression (to hurt someone or get revenge), and
annoyance aggression (to stop an irritant). When our aggression becomes so
extreme that we lose self-control, it is said that we are in a rage.
Aggression must be distinguished from assertiveness which is tactfully
and rationally standing up for ones own rights; indeed, assertiveness is
designed not to hurt others (see chapter 8).
Anger can also be distinguished from hostility which is a chronic state of
anger. Anger is a temporary response, which we all have, to a particular
frustrating situation; hostility is a permanent personality characteristic which
certain people have.
We know when we are very mad, but anger and aggression come in many
forms, some quite subtle. Look inside yourself for more anger. This list
(Madlow, 1972) of behaviors and verbal comments said to others or only
thought to ourselves may help you uncover some resentments you were not
Direct behavioral signs:
Assaultive: physical and verbal cruelty, rage, slapping, shoving,
kicking, hitting, threaten with a knife or gun, etc.
Aggression: overly critical, fault finding, name-calling, accusing
someone of having immoral or despicable traits or motives,
nagging, whining, sarcasm, prejudice, flashes of temper.
Hurtful: malicious gossip, stealing, trouble-making.
Rebellious: anti-social behavior, open defiance, refusal to talk.
Direct verbal or cognitive signs:
Open hatred and insults: "I hate your guts;" "I'm really mad;"
"You're so damn stupid."
Contempt and disgust: "You're a selfish SOB;" "You are a
spineless wimp, you'll never amount to anything."
Critical: "If you really cared about me, you'd...;"
"You can't trust _______."
Suspicious: "You haven't been fair;" "You cheated!"
Blaming: "They have been trying to cause me trouble."
I don't get the respect I deserve: "They just don't respect the
owner (or boss or teacher or doctor) any more."
Revengeful: "I wish I could really hurt him."
Name calling: "Guys are jerks;" "Women are bitches;"
"Politicians are self-serving liars."
Less intense but clear: "Well, I'm a little annoyed;" "I'm fed up
with...;" "I've had it!" "You're a pain." "I don't want to be
Thinly veiled behavioral signs:
Argumentative, irritable, indirectly challenging.
Resentful, jealous, envious.
Disruptive, uncooperative, or distracting actions.
Unforgiving or unsympathetic attitude.
Sulky, sullen, pouting.
Passively resistant, interferes with progress.
Given to sarcasm, cynical humor, and teasing.
Judgmental, has a superior or holier-than-thou attitude.
Thinly veiled verbal signs:
"No, I'm not mad, I'm just disappointed, annoyed, disgusted,
put out, or irritated."
"You don't know what you are talking about;" "Don't make me
"Don't push me, I'll do it when I get good and ready."
"Well, they aren't my kind of people."
"Would you buy a used car from him?"
"You could improve on..."
"Unlike Social Work, my major admits only the best students."
Indirect behavioral signs:
Withdrawal: quiet remoteness, silence, little communication
especially about feelings.
Psychosomatic disorders: tiredness, anxiety, high blood
pressure, heart disease. Actually, college students with high
Hostility scores had, 20 years later, become more overweight
with higher cholesterol and hypertension, had drunk more
coffee and alcohol, had smoked more cigarettes, and generally
had poorer health (Friedman, 1991). See chapter 5 for a
discussion of psychogenic disorders.
Depression and guilt.
Serious mental illness: paranoid schizophrenia.
Accident-proneness and self-defeating or addictive behavior,
such as drinking, over-eating, or drugs.
Vigorous, distracting activity (exercising or cleaning).
Excessively submissive, deferring behavior.
Indirect verbal signs:
"I just don't want to talk."
"I'm disappointed in our relationship."
"I feel bad all the time."
"If you had just lost some weight."
"I'm really swamped with work, can't we do something about
"Why does this always happen to me?"
"No, I'm not angry about anything--I just cry all the time."
It is obvious from these "signs of anger" that anger is frequently a
concealed or disguised emotion. And why not? Getting mad is scary... and
potentially dangerous. One common way of expressing suppressed anger has
been given a special name: passive-aggressiveness. It is releasing your
anger by being passive or subtly oppositional. For example, such a person
may be "tired," unresponsive, act like he/she "doesn't understand," be late
frequently, exaggerate others' faults, pretend to agree ("sure, whatever"), be
tearful, be argumentative, be forgetful, deny anger ("nothing's wrong"),
procrastinate, and frequently be clumsy or sick (Hankins, 1993). Many of
these traits and behaviors are listed above.
There is another related form of concealed anger: feeling like a victim.
Feeling victimized assumes that someone or some situation has mistreated
you. But a person who specializes in constantly feeling like a victim may not
identify or accuse his/her abuser. Instead, he/she generally feels that the
world is against him/her, that others vaguely intend to make him/her
miserable. Victims usually feel helpless; therefore, they take little
responsibility for what has happened to them. They think they were terribly
mistreated in the past but they now seem unable to accept love and support,
e.g. if you offer them help, they never get enough or if you try to cheer them
up, it seldom works. A victim is much more likely to sulk, pout, look unhappy,
or lay a guilt trip on something than to get angry. They play games: "Why
does it always happen to me?" or "Yes, but" (no one's ideas or suggestions
will do any good). The self-pitying, pessimistic, sad, jealous victim is surely
sitting on a mass of hostility.
Both the passive-aggressive and the victim are likely to be aware of their
anger, even though it is largely denied. In chapter 9 we will discuss "game
playing" in which the aggressor plays "You're Not OK" or put down games
without being aware of his/her anger. Anger expresses itself in many forms:
cynic, naysayer, critic, bigot, etc. Potter-Efron & Potter-Efron (1995) describe
ten different styles of expressing anger; this may help you identify your type
and help you stop it.
How angry are you?
There are so many frustrations in our daily lives; one could easily become
chronically irritated. Perhaps more important than the variety of things that
anger us, is (1) the intensity of our anger and (2) the degree of control we
have over our anger. That is, how close are we to losing control? About two-
thirds of the students in my classes feel the need to gain more control over
How much of a temper do you have? Ask yourself these kind of questions:
Do you have a quick or a hot temper? Do you suppress or hide
your anger (passive-aggressive or victim)?
Do you get irritated when someone gets in your way? fails to
give you credit for your work? criticizes your looks or opinions
or work? gives themselves advantages over you?
Do you get angry at yourself when you make a foolish mistake?
do poorly in front of others? put off important things? do
something against your morals or better judgment?
Do you drink alcohol or use drugs? Do you get angry or mellow
when you are high? Research clearly shows that alcohol and
drugs are linked with aggression. Drinking decreases our
judgment and increases our impulsiveness, so watch out.
You probably have a pretty accurate picture of your temper. But check your
opinion against the opinion of you held by relatives and friends. There also are
several tests that measure anger, e.g. Spielberger (1988) and by DiGiuseppe &
Tafrate (2003). The latter scale has 18 subscales but only takes 20 minutes.
A case of jealous anger
Tony and Jane had gone together a long time, long enough to wear off the
thrill and take each other for granted. The place where this was most
apparent was at dances and parties. Tony was very outgoing. He liked to
"circulate" and meet people, so he would leave Jane with a couple of her
friends and he would go visit all his old buddies. This bothered Jane; she
would have liked to go along. But what really bothered Jane was Tony's eye
for beautiful women. As he moved around greeting his friends, he looked for
the best-looking, relatively unattached woman there. Tony was nice looking, a
good dancer, and not at all shy. He'd introduce himself, find out about the
woman, tell some funny stories about what he had done, and, if it were a
dance, ask her to dance. Eventually, he would excuse himself and come back
over to Jane and her friends. He just enjoyed meeting new people and
dancing or parties.
Jane resented this routine. She had told Tony how she felt many times.
He told her that she was being ridiculous. Jane felt much more anger, hurt,
jealousy, and distrust inside than she let show. She was usually quiet and
"cool" for a little while but pretty soon she would dance with Tony and it
seemed like she got over it. Yet, even the next day she would think about
what had happened and cry. About lunch time she would wonder what Tony
was doing. A little fantasy would flash through her mind about Tony calling up
the woman he danced with and asking her out to lunch. That would hurt her
Understanding Anger: Facts and Theories
How much hatred is there in the world? The 2002 WHO
When will our consciences grow so tender that we will act to prevent human misery rather
than avenge it?
-----Eleanor Roosevelt (1884-1962)
WAR IS A RACKET It always has been. It is possibly the oldest, easily the most profitable,
surely the most vicious. It is the only one international in scope. It is the only one in which the
profits are reckoned in dollars and the losses in lives.
-----General Smedley Butler (1881-1940),
US Marine Corps, two time winner
Congressional Metal of Honor
In 2002 the World Health Organization (WHO) produced the first carefully estimated
world report about violence (The World Report on Violence and Health, October,
2002, can be downloaded as a PDF full report or as a series of summaries from
can email firstname.lastname@example.org). The WHO researchers found that about 1.6 million
people die in violent ways every year. This includes wars, murder by gangs and
groups, youth violence, child abuse, elderly abuse, domestic violence, sexual abuse,
and suicide. Besides the people dying a violent death, there are, of course, many
millions of people injured by violence and/or left to suffer the long-term
consequences of violent acts. Keep in mind many violent events occur at home and
are never reported.
Perhaps other ways of looking at these statistics will be more meaningful to you. For
ages 15 to 44, violence causes about 14% of all deaths among males and 7% of
deaths among women. World wide about 1425 people are murdered each day,
which is almost one person every minute. As we saw in the last chapter, about half
of all violent deaths are suicides; one person dies this way every 40 seconds. Armed
conflict, during the 20th century, took a tragic 191 million lives (half were civilians),
about 35 deaths an hour. That is appalling, considering that wars are leader or state
dictated events that often do not benefit the people who fight the wars (how much
did you gain from the 110,000+ US soldiers who died in Korea and Vietnam?). Yet,
the world is doing relatively little to reduce arms or to outlaw wars.
Women take the brunt of serious domestic abuse. Half (up to 70% in some
countries) of all women who are victims of homicide are killed by their current or
former husbands or boyfriends. Moreover, in parts of the world, up to one-third of
young girls and teens are forced into their first sexual experience. Sometime during
the course of their lifetime, 25% of women have been treated abusively by their
sexual partner. So, what should be a wonderful loving experience is turned into an
inconsiderate, hateful interaction.
I hope you are disturbed by these statistics. Enough of us need to get upset enough
that we urge and encourage that cultures change. The World Report on Violence and
Health provides impressive data documenting how cruel we humans are to each
other. The experts who compiled this report believe violence can be prevented. They
dont spell out specific plans yet, but the director, General Gro Harlem Brundtland,
mentions a few causes to be addressed: child abuse, substance abuse, marital
conflict, guns, and inequalities between the sexes and between rich and poor. There
are many other and underlying causes of violence, of course, but each of us must
watch for defeatist attitudes, such as Oh, violence is way too complicated to do
anything about it, or anger is just human nature, you cant change that, these
poor countries cant even feed their children, so how could they overcome anger?,
do you think the wealthier countries will agree to help the poor countries who would
over-run them if they could? and religions havent been able to build love and
reduce hate in thousands of years, so how could self-serving, power-grabbing
governments do it? These pessimistic thoughts stop constructive actions.
What can be done to reduce hate, anger, and violence? I hope, as you read this
chapter, that you find several opportunities for you to control your anger and to
contribute to global efforts to avoid violence or war and to be kinder to each other. I
believe parents and schools could teach everyone many things about how to control
their anger. I believe help in resolving parent-child and marital conflicts could be
made readily available. We could, as individuals, encourage other people, our own
government, and other nations to negotiate differences rather than developing a
negative stereotype of each other and fighting with each other. Good conflict
resolution practices could be praised wherever they occur. Teach the benefits of
understanding others and acquire the wisdom of forgiving unkind acts. There are
many things to do that will reduce the level of violence in families and increase the
kindness in the world.
There are two related problems that badly need attention: (1) having self-control
and individually coping with an angry person and (2) conflict resolution within
families, ethnic and religious groups, work organizations, and especially between
armed gangs, political movements or militaristic countries. Self-control is different
from peacefully settling arguments between tribes and countries. Relatively little
science-based efforts are being made in either area, although the world is filled with
people willing to give you or sell you advice about self-discipline. And there are even
more moralistic teachers and preachers holding forth along with lawyers, social
scientists, and politicians who claim special skills or methods for fairly resolving
conflicts. With all these people trying to save the world, why arent the World Court
and United Nations better supported and used to keep peace? Why do some people
have many more resources and much more influence than others if the majority of
people in the world really believe in democracy? Why cant modern, educated
societies restrict revenge and develop rules of engagement to limit violence like
many animals and primitive tribes did? Why do we think in terms of using massive
force, unconditional surrender, kill them all, etc?
"The world is too dangerous...not because of the people who do evil, but because of the
people who sit and let it happen."
"The mere formulation of a problem is far more essential than its solution. To
raise new questions, new possibilities, to regard old problems from a new angle
requires creative imagination and marks real advances."
How do we get so angry? Sternbergs theory
Psychologists have given much less thought to hate than to love, depression, fears,
and bad habits. Yet, there are a few books and theories about why we hate (Keen,
1986; Dozier, 2003; Levin & Rabrenovic, 2004). One of the best and most recent
theories is by Dr. Robert Sternberg (2005), who is well known for his descriptions of
higher mental functions (intelligence, creativity and wisdom). He has also proposed a
theory about love. He says that love has three parts: (1) intimacy, (2) passion and
(3) commitment. A major factor that contributes to the love one achieves in life
consists of the various love stories (expectations and memories) one experiences
and retains about love over his/her life time. Examples of love stories or beliefs are:
(a) marriage is a business deal and each person has jobs to do; (b) one person can
not meet all your needs so you need to have lots of relationships, not just a lover,
and (c) love soon becomes boring or a series of unhappy wars; (d) love is a fairy tale
of a prince and a princess who have a wonderful life together loving each other
forever; and so on.
Sternberg applies many of the same ideas to hate. The three components that
make up hate are: (1) First a steady avoidance of interacting with people we dont
like which leads to having few facts and little understanding of each other. Without
meaningful interaction with our enemies there is little way to discredit the
propaganda and rumors we hear about them being inferior, arrogant, immoral, cruel,
subhuman, or evil people, almost like dirty or vicious animals. (2) A second part of
hate is a strong emotional reaction of passionate anger, contempt, and disgust or
dislike for the enemy. These negative feelings are quick conditioned responses which
our brain doesnt check for accuracy. (3) The third part of hate consists of a belief
system that adds fuel to the hot emotions and justifies our hate and our firm
commitment to avoiding, denouncing, and degrading or destroying the hated group.
Of course, each part of hate varies in strength from person to person, time to time,
and situation to situation, resulting in different kinds of hatred discussed later.
Starting early in life children are often taughtvia storiesand citizens are
persuaded (via propaganda by the state) that the enemy is a despicable group of
people. Sternberg considers that very important, using several pages to describe the
typical stories used to generate hate that underlies war, terrorism, massacres,
genocide and so on. The evil enemy is often described as a stranger who looks odd
and is dirty and trying to control or wanting to torture you. He is likely to hate your
religion and be an enemy of God. One of the favorite stories to arouse hatred
describes the hated group as rapists and murderers of women and children. Early in
US history Indians were described as savages standing in the way of the Manifest
Destiny of our great new nation. Summary: the hate-generating stories often depict
the enemy as barbaric, ignorant, cruel, dirty, lazy, animalistic, greedy, dangerous,
and lusting after women and as enemies of God. Sternberg (2005) also discusses the
motives of governments, religions, ethnic or economic groups for wanting to foment
The more you have of these three parts of hate the more you hate the people you
consider enemies or bad. If you have enough hate, it is quite possible that you would
support genocide; many countries haveGermans in the Holocaust, Khmer Rouge in
Cambodia, Pakistani in Bangladesh, Russians in Ukraine, Hutus in Rwanda, Tutsis
against Hutus in Burundi, Serbs in Bosnia and Kosovo, Genghis Khan in Asia,
Sudanese against Darfur, and even in U.S. history Christians in the Crusades and the
United States used force to almost eliminate the Indians. It is hard to imagine how
intelligent humans are able to build up enough hate to justify killing basically
innocent men, women, and children. Sometimes the hate is so intense that people
are not just quickly killed but brutally destroyed by cutting off their heads or raping
the women using guns, knives, and crude instruments so that, if they live, the
women can never have children.
Leaders and moral authorities sometimes use propaganda to build a belief system so
filled with intense hatred that the general public becomes persuaded that it is
morally justified and even a moral duty to fight and kill the enemy. This hate-
building process is happening many places in the world even in its most intense
form, e.g. in Israel and Palestine, in Iraq, in other Islamic countries, in Northern
Ireland, in North Korea. But in many places moderate dislike and strong suspicions
are being built by leaders. Leaders should be very cautious about labeling people as
evil, even if it garners them votes or power. The stereotypes generated by
propaganda are often not accurate at all and certainly dont fit everyone in the group
described. Not everyone subject to this propaganda becomes avid haters; some may
merely come to feel superior to the enemy and, in general, self-righteous.
One advantage of Sternbergs theory of hate is that various combinations of the
three components result in several distinctly different kinds of hate which could help
us better understand the nature of hate and may yield clues to treating the hater.
The most intense type of hatred could be called burning hate. This occurs when
all three components are so intense (burning passion of hate, scornfully avoiding
interacting with the hated group, and a solidified belief that the enemy is bad) that
the result may be a belief that the enemy should be annihilated. There is, of
course, hate in milder forms: cool hate when the angry person just doesnt want
to be around the disliked group, hot hate like road rage where the person is
feeling very angry for a short time but doesnt know much about the other person
and knows it is temporary, and simmering hate when the hater feels loathing or
disgust towards a certain group of people for a long time but feels only a moderately
intense passion of hate. Some psychologists believe such people could stay angry for
a long time and eventually work out plans to become quite dangerous to national
leaders or to leaders of the enemy group, such as gays and lesbians. Several kinds
of hate are described by Sternbergs system.
Almost as an afterthought in his article Sternberg (2005) asks is there a cure for
hate? No, he says, but there are things that could be done when war or terrorism is
threatening: (1) Urge both sides to avoid using negative stereotypes and to cool the
rhetoric by omitting the hate producing stories, (2) recognize the three-legged stool
that hate is built on and remember that hate increases when any ingredient is
strengthened, (3) remember that derogatory stories and propaganda rapidly escalate
anger and hatred and increase the risk of violence, (4) take action, if you can, to
oppose hate and reduce tension rather than being a passive observer. Sternberg
believes that angry conflicts are best fought by wisdom, including understanding
practically useful psychology and having empathy for others so you can see things
from another perspective. Wisdom is the key to recognizing the exaggerations and
hateful lies in the propaganda and stories that form the basis of prejudice and hatred
of other people. He has proposed that schools develop programs to teach wisdom
or use the teaching program he has already developed (Sternberg, 2001).
Aaron Beck (2000), an early founder of Cognitive Therapy, presents a similar
explanation of the cognitive distortions that lead to individual violent behavior and to
group/governmental acts of terrorism, war, and genocide. If these atrocities are
going to be stopped by rational people, much more needs to be learned about anger,
prejudice, violence, and self-control. And a world movement against killing as a way
of solving conflicts needs to be nourished.
Everything that irritates us about others can lead us to an understanding of ourselves.
-----Carl Jung, 1857-1961, Swiss Psychiatrist~~
How anger interacts with other emotions and factors
Since anger can be such a powerful emotion, its impact is felt in many ways. Perhaps
we should start by reviewing the complex relationships that exist between anger and
other emotions (see Chapters 5, 6, 7, and 8) as well as between anger and other
behaviors or factors, such as values. First of all, if you are strong-willed, the values,
morals, ideals that guide your life may have a big influence on your angry emotions
and aggressive behaviors. On the other hand, if your anger is especially strong, it
may severely test or overwhelm your ideals about how to behave. In any case, you
have to find a way for your anger to co-exist with your sense of appropriate behavior
and your philosophy of life (see Chapter 3). Many people (including me) believe that
your ideals should trump your surging angry moods (if you fail in this, then you will
have another emotionguilt--to deal with).
I believe that one of your highest priorities should be keeping your vindictive anger,
your self-serving (or others-be-damned) ambitions, and your resentment under
control. The consequences of anger, such as being inconsiderate, mean, or violent,
are behaviors; therefore, you need to have a thorough knowledge of how to avoid
the pitfalls of anger and control your excessive aggression and other unwanted
behaviors. (See Chapter 4).
To think is easy. To act is hard. But the hardest thing in the world is to
act in accordance with your thinking.
Johann von Goethe, 1749-1832, German Poet, Dramatist, Novelist
Most of us feel a little tense when we get angry. We know there are risks involved;
we might lose control and others might retaliate. We certainly get anxious when
someone gets angry at us. When we feel put down, we may become aggressive to
boost our ego. When we become stressed, our self-control weakens; we are at risk
of acting on impulse, neglecting commitments, or becoming irritated. Yet, anger can
be a great motivator that helps us get over our fears. To do right we often need a
strong determined intolerance of injustice and to be most effective we may need to
keep our stress under control (see Chapter 5). Both anxiety and depression are
stressful and interfere with self-control (Oaten & Cheng, 2005). Acting out of anger
may also bring on guilt or shame as well as anxiety, so the emotions get complex
and confused. Chapters 5, 6 and 7 should help you deal with these major emotions
but these intermeshed feelings are exerting pressures in different directions on your
values and your behavior. You may need to read parts of several chapters. To
complicate matters even more, keep in mind that therapists often believe that one
emotion may be used (unconsciously sometimes) to conceal another feeling. For
example, a person may start a fight with a parent, spouse, or friend to change the
topic, to get attention, or to avoid expressing positive feelings or closeness. Another
example: it has been my experience that when many women look depressed and
cry, they are often (about 75% of the time) feeling anger under their sadness. Does
that seem likely to you?
It is well supported by careful research that stress, depression, and anger are bad
for your physical health, especially your heart. Gradually even medicine is
recognizing this and, since depression fairly often doesnt respond to
antidepressants, it is becoming more common for medical researchers to recommend
trying psychotherapy if antidepressants do not work within a couple of months and
the reverse if psychotherapy doesnt reduce depression, then switch to medication
for a while (Medical Staff, Stanford University School of Medicine, in Archives of
General Psychiatry,2005, 62, 513-520).
Famous theories also suggest that there are strong connections between depression
(Chapter 6) and anger (Chapter 7). The things we do while angry are a prime
source of guilt and shame (see next section). Anger turned inward on the self is a
classical dynamic that is supposed to cause depression. Some psychologists, e.g. Dr.
Tony Schirtzinger (Self-Therapy at http://www.helpyourselftherapy.com/), say
depressed people are angry people who wont admit it. These therapists
recommend reducing depression by teaching patients to assertively express their
frustration and anger. By getting their angry feelings out into the open and by
assertively getting more of the things they want in life, their depression declines.
Other therapists see a different connection, believing that the pain of having
depression causes the anger to build. My point here is that there are many
connections among emotions and with behavior. You may need to learn about these
connections in order to understand and control your anger.
You might at first believe that dependency (Chapter 8) has very little to do with
aggression, but that isnt so. In Psychiatry it is a common assumption that a weak,
submissive, dependent person is likely to be very resentful of his/her circumstances
(but often is not able to express their anger). Ask yourself: how many sacrificing
wives and selfless mothers experienced resentment after the Womens Movement
increased their awareness? Answer: millions. Also, a famous psychology experiment
described in chapter 8 demonstrates that dependency can drive people to be
aggressive even though they arent angry. Stanley Milgram studied compliance or
obedience to authority by having a psychology instructor direct volunteer helpers
to shock students as a part of an experiment. Actually no electric shock was given
but the volunteers believed they were giving powerful, painful shocks (and felt very
uncomfortable about doing that). The study tried to find out: (1) What percent of
volunteers would follow orders to shock someone? And, (2) How much pain would
they inflict on the subjects? The answers they found were: (1) a high percentage of
them were willing to administer (2) strong shock when urged to. The results showed
that most people will do some very mean, cruel things just to comply with a person
in authority whom they hardly know and may never see again. That study certainly
relates to the willingness of ordinary Germans to carry out the horrors of the
Anger is usually directed towards people and most of the people who are targets of
anger get angry in return. Most of this Anger chapter tries to explain why we get
angry and what we can do to reduce or avoid anger. This is a complex matterso
many experiences make us more or less volatile, including our genes, our
personality, our childhood experiences, our community, our social group, our
frustrations with loved ones and children, our alcohol and drug use, etc. which are
partly discussed in Chapter 9. Watch some children and you will probably observe
that some would prefer to fight than to be neglected. It is fascinating that people
who live in small towns in the South provide an example of the influence of a cultural
code of honor (Nisbett, 2005). Small towns and rural areas across the south and
west to the Texas Panhandle have a preference for violent activities: football,
hunting and shooting, corporal punishment in schools, and support for going to war.
When asked if a man has a right to kill to defend his home, 36% of rural Southerners
say yes but only 18% of rural Northerners say yes. Note: The murder rate in the
South is 3 to 5 times higher than in similar northern areas. Why is this? Nisbett says
it is because of the Scotch-Irish settlers there were herders (sheep, hogs, and
cattle). Apparently herders the world over are zealous protectors of their flocks and
property and quick to take offense at the slightest insult. A Northerner would just
laugh off a mild insult; the Southerner doesnt overlook slights.
Lastly, anger plays a big role in our love and sexual relationships (see Chapter 10).
Who make us the maddest? Often the person we love. Lovers have the power to hurt
us deeply. For unclear reasons, people with intense anger (and maybe serious
mental disorders) get involved in many kinds of sexual urges and activities.
Examples: rape, assault, molestation, sadism, and masochism. Anger plays a role in
impotence, frigidity, and pornography. Research has shown that watching more
physically aggressive porno films increases the aggressiveness in males (Byrne &
Kelley, 1981). On the other hand, sex therapists report that some loving couples
have their best sex after being angry. In fact, Bry (1976), a female sex therapist,
recommends that married couples try to make love to erase their anger. It may work
for some but Id suggest some other approach.
I hope you are seeing that understanding and coping with anger (yours and others)
may require you to become familiar with many other emotions and lots of behavior
change methods. The last five methods chapters in this book spell out in detail
many ways of modifying behaviors, emotions, skills, thoughts, and insight, all of
which can help you. This chapter is designed to be your guide
Are some people just evil? If not, how do they learn to
be so awful?
Occasionally you hear of a horrendous crimean 80-year-old woman is brutally
assaulted, being raped, stabbed many times, and perhaps the head or body parts cut
off and buried. No one can understand why a total stranger would do this. In ones
mind one paints a picture of intense, uncontrolled rage. The act is so extremely
abhorrent that one cant imagine oneself doing such a violent, revolting and
senseless thing. Most people might say the person who did that is an evil person.
That is about as far as ones explanation can go. For most people that may be all the
explanation of behavior they need. In some peculiar way evil explains what has
happened. But the term isnt an adequate explanation. Evil says the acts are bad
but it doesnt clarify the reasons or the means by which evil forces caused this
Evil is one of the oldest explanations of terribly bad behavior. It is a religious
concept, coming from the ancient notion of opposing good and evil forcesGod and
the Devil--fighting for control over peoples lives and worldly events. At other times
in less serious and bizarre circumstances it is said almost as a joke, The Devil made
me do it. That may be a subtle request that the listener not undertake a deeper
analysis of the speakers motives. The Devil did it may also be said more seriously
to help explain some shamefully inconsiderate, immoral, or selfish behavior or to
escape some responsibility for what one has done. It is like saying it was not
entirely my fault or I dont know why I did it.
There are many abominable acts committed for unfathomable reasons. I dont refer
just to mass murder of unknown people (the World Trade Center Towers, the
Washington, D.C snipers) but also to leaders who plan genocide (Hitler, Malosovich,
and Sudan or Uganda leaders) or start or prolong unnecessary wars, businesses that
deceive or cheat lots of people, and so on, as well as spouse and child abusers,
rapists, sexual abusers, petty criminals or ordinary cons, and people who are cruel to
animals. One can see why the most horrible and least understood acts of these
people might be called evil because the term reflects our fear of and disdain for
immoral acts. But when evil replaces explanatory scientific terms and methods, it
blocks our getting knowledge about the true causes of terrible violent and weird
behaviors. Lets think about that a little bit.
There certainly are uncaring, self-centered people in the world; they are in powerful
political and economic positions, in prisons, in business, in families and virtually
everywhere. In our society, we dont approve of greed but we certainly understand
the payoffs involved in taking advantage of others. Even when greed is extreme (like
a corporation executive absconding with all the retirement funds of the employees)
we are likely to see that kind of act as selfish, cruel, or psychopathic, rather than
evil. The idea of evil is more likely to be used when the crime is brutal, senseless,
and heinous but has no obvious pay off (like huge profits, amassing power or status,
or getting revenge). Using evil as an explanation is an attempt to understand
unusually bad behavior without having knowledge about how such behavior actually
develops. The use of evil is something like 1000 years ago when people attributed
a severe drought to the Gods being angry. But evil provides no valid explanation of
an atrocious act, thus, evil cant accurately explain the forces or conditions that
lead to these behaviors (similarly, science-based weather forecasting today is more
accurate than understanding and predictions were 1000 years ago). The idea that an
atrocity was just Gods will doesnt really explain anything because we are left with
the problem of explaining why God willed such behavior (that would be even more
difficult than predicting behavior). And we are left without any understanding of the
mechanisms of how evil exerts its influence on behavior; it is just magic. The
effects of evil influences are not predictable because those forces are not based on
any documented cause-and-effect relationships. In contrast we know the causes of
droughts and floods. Evil seems to merely proclaim that behaviors might be caused
by spiritual/mystical forces (like the Devil).When we know more about violence and
greed, our explanations will be more specific.
The concept of evil only partly satisfies the powerful human needs to understand
why things happen. There are many circumstances where evil is used or could
easily be used to explain the intense driving force behind inexplicable violence. If you
have any doubts about the degree of hatred and rage in some people, then read
some of the histories of famous criminals (Fox, J. & Levin, J., 2005) or Hickey,
(2001). You might also read the actual law enforcement profiles of offenders who
have tortured, raped, maimed and killed totally innocent victims (Campbell &
DeNevi, 2004). Warning: these books describe very gory events. Not recommended
to the young or the squeamish. However, these authors discuss the cultural,
historical, and religious factors that influence our myths, including evil, and
stereotypes of violent individuals. They then also describe the biological,
psychological, and sociological reasons, based on current science, for serial or mass
murders. In general, these experts deplore the lack of research about such awful
offenses. In general, they claim that serial killers are losers, who feel they have
never distinguished themselves, but are obsessed with power and dominance.
Abusers turn to violence to achieve power; they use brutality to look like powerful
men. Often as a child, they were themselves abused and rejected. Like all behavior,
evil acts have a history.
Personally, I think evil is a vague but quite descriptive literary term which implies
that mysterious, supernatural forces are responsible for abominable thoughts,
intentions, and overt acts. But the concept of evil keeps us in the dark ages. Such
thinking obstructs historical investigations for causes, objective measurements, and
scientific study. There is little agreement from person to person what evil
influences are, where they come from, how they work, and whether evil forces can
be changed. Since evil cant be observed (the resulting horrible acts are observed
but the nature of the evil influences triggering bad acts cant be directly observed),
how could we gain knowledge about evil? The evil concept alone detracts us from
objectively and scientifically studying many topics and acts of great importance, such
In my estimation, when we come to understand (through hard scientific studies) the
complex factors that underlie violence, such as the factors mentioned above and
discussed later in this chapter, we will no longer need the concept of evil. Many
decades from now, when lawful cause and effect connections are known between
genes, childhood experiences, brain disorders, psychological or mental disorders,
attitudes and thoughts, hormonal influences, specific psychological/social
environments and mean, cruel, or destructive behaviors, we will no longer need to
believe in supernatural forces to understand anger, violence, and meanness. Even
now, most people no longer need to believe in Satan or demons but the notion of
evil is still with us in subtle forms. We do need to learn a lot more about the
complex conditions and laws of behavior that produce violence, resentful attitudes,
prejudice, intolerance, greed, delusions, poor impulse control, and psychopathic
I want to give you another example of how science can understand awful (evil)
acts and thereby avoid the mystical anti-scientific notions embedded in explanations
that use evil. Military leaders, as well as psychologists and psychiatrists, observed
during the Vietnam War that some soldiers who had been in combatsometimes
captured and torturedand had seen the brutality involved in war were more likely
to become brutal and violent themselves. Some US soldiers killed old men, women
and children without good cause. It may amaze youit did methat an estimated
20% of American officers who died in Vietnam were killed by their own men. A
psychiatrist, Jonathan Shay (1995), studied such acts and wrote a book, Achilles in
Vietnam: Combat trauma and the undoing of character. His title states his thesis,
namely, going through the horrors of war, results in the soldiers own conscience and
morals (or impulse control) deteriorating and becoming radically changed. This is
especially likely if the soldier has personally been grossly mistreated or if the soldier
has been misinformed or mislead about what is right by his own officers or
government, and if the soldier has brutalized others. For some soldiers it becomes
much easier to inflict pain, disregard suffering, and to killthe kinds of things that
we might call evil. Another consequence to the soldier fighting a war may be long-
term suffering of Traumatic Stress Disorder (discussed in chapter 5). We will also see
in this chapter that many evil people have grown up without experiencing
dependable love, care, and empathy. Many violent people, grossly mistreated when
young, have learned early to enjoy hurting others, e.g. bullying others and hurting
A fascinating study by Alette Smeulers, a professor at Maastricht University in
Netherlands (presented at EPCR in Torino, March, 2002), is about the training used
to convince a person to torture, torment, or maim for a government. A few people
have life experiences that make them sadistic and cruel but there have been many
schools, mostly government run, that make ordinary people into torturers. How do
the trainers change people? Smeulers says these training programs usually select
people with a militaristic background, i.e. accustomed to taking orders and having
unquestioning loyalty to authority. There are then three long stages in the training of
torture perpetrators: (1) routine exposure to being in situations where torture
occurs, e.g. first just guarding prisoners who are tortured. More and more they are
permitted to see the torture. Then gradually the trainee is asked to actually help the
torturers. (2) At first, hurting someone is hard, but the trainee learns to rationalize
and justify his actions. In the trainees mind the enemy is dehumanized; they are
seen as evil or inferior. Feelings of shame and guilt are blocked or overcome--
desensitized. (3) Being brutal and cruel becomes routine and habitual. I just did my
job. I had no choice The torturer rationalizes his actions and his governments
actions. You get used to stressing the prisoners and inflicting pain. So, these schools
clearly show that cruelty can be taught. Not every one will willingly torture people; it
is way too disturbing for some. But some will convince themselves that the cruelty is
necessary. After becoming a torturer or abusivenaturally or by special training
can they become kind? Some stop when they are confronted with their actions.
Some continue to take pride in what they do.
Shays book about the effects of combat is very powerful. It should be read before
anyone votes for war. It will open your eyes to the soldiers view of war, especially
what the author calls the betrayal of whats right. The soldier comes to war
believing that killing civilians is wrong, that the entire nation approves the killing he
is sent to do, that company commanders know what is happening in the war, where
the friendly artillery shells will land, and what dangers lie 100 yards ahead, that we
are winning the war if the enemy has more dead than we have, etc. However, the
events and conditions the soldier experiences in combat may convince him/her that
what he is told is not the truth that even his own leaders have betrayed him. Those
confusing situations contribute to combat fatigue or Traumatic Stress Disorder.
Finally, there are many probably false beliefs about the forces of evil that should be
investigated. Examples: (1) That evil develops very early in childhood and becomes
an unstoppable part of a persons basic primitive personality. (2) That evil urges
cant be psychologically explained and evil cant be blamed on life events, like child
abuse, emotional trauma, ethnic or religious hatred, psychological disorders, TV,
friends, etc. (3) Evil is an addiction, like in a serial killer, and is an insatiable thirst
for a special high that comes with over-powering, injuring, and killing people or
animals. (4) That evil people experience no regrets or guilt about what they have
done and have no wish to change. These assumed characteristics of evil can be can
be studied and confirmed or refuted. If the notion of evil is not researched, it may,
like other social taboos, interfere with our psychological thinking about anger and
violence for 100s of years. My belief is that evil is a left-over idea from centuries
old religion and mysticism that needs to be replaced with research based concepts.
Later in this chapter we discuss specific abusive situations that make us very
uncomfortable and, partly for that reason, these acts are not researched nearly as
well as they should be. Examples: very violent or threatening people, rapists, incest
perpetrators, sexual and emotional abusers of children, molesters, people who inflict
pain and torture children, etc. Mental illness may be a much more powerful factor in
these behaviors than we believe at this time, consider, e.g. Andrea Yates, the post-
partum depressed mother who killed all 5 of her children, and Susan Smith, who
drowned her children by sinking her car in a lake. The evil notion may still play a
role in our thinking about these kinds of behavior too, even in our courts.
The Control of Emotions
The Greeks had various views of emotionsAristotle believed having emotions was a
part of the good life while Stoics saw emotions as faulty thinking that led to misery.
Christians became preoccupied with emotions, passions, or strong desires, focusing
on the seven sins: greed, gluttony, lust, anger, envy, and pride. Descartes
attempted to sidestep the complexly bewildering interaction between mind and body
by teaching that there were two separate (dualistic) worlds, one made up of physical
matter (our body) and the other of spirits (our mind and emotions). God was also
regarded as spirit. Descartes thought our minds interacted with our bodies but can
exist without a physical body. Within the last century, Freud taught that psychiatric
problems were often due to the individuals loss of control of his/her emotions.
Likewise, he thought that a society could flourish only by controlling the emotional
impulses of its members. Most modern psychologists also believe mental health
involves controlling emotions and the distress caused by them.
Society tries to control meanness with harsh punishment
Certain emotions, however, get more and different attention than others. For
instance, anxiety and depression get far more treatment, both talking therapy and
drug treatment, than anger and aggression. Society relies heavily on punishment to
reduce aggression and defiance of the lawa method not used with anxiety or
sadness. In the case of criminals, almost the only method for changing this emotion
is physical restraintlock them up and throw away the key. Overall the results of
using punishment to stop misbehavior have not been promising. And we do not seem
highly motivated to investigate various other methods of reducing violence, hatred,
and breaking the law. For people who are annoying at work or school, there are a
few anger management programs (discussed later) but not nearly the variety of
specialized individual treatment methods and clinics as available for sad or stressed
people. It may be that angry people are not as eager to change themselves as tense
or disappointed people are. It is probably also true that the victims of someone elses
anger are not very eager to help the offender change; they mostly want to stay away
from them. These attitudes and conditions are part of the social circumstances that
make it harder to reduce anger.
For reasons I hope to soon make clearer, Americans are amazingly violent compared
to people in other countries. In 2002, approximately 290 million Americans suffered
23 million crimes. 23% of those crimes were crimes of violence. For every 1000
people over 12, there was one rape or sexual assault, another assault resulting in an
injury, and two robberies. Yet, criminal violence is fairly predictable (not at some
specific time but in general) in the sense that 50% of males convicted of a crime
between 10 and 16-years-of-age will be convicted of more crimes as adults. Also,
being exposed to violence in childhood (at home, in their community, & in the
media) is associated with the child having poor health (Graham-Bermann & Seng,
2005) and with them being violent as an adult. We could do something about these
things but we dont, perhaps because we believe aggression is just human nature
and/or because we are angry and thus indifferent to stressed kids, especially if they
are of another race or a different economic or ethnic group. Also, our society is far
more insistent on punishing rather than preventing adolescent
violence/crime/misbehavior (another reflection of our own anger?).
The U.S. crime rate has fallen over the last 10 years. But the number in jails and
prisons continues to increase due to old get-tough policies, e.g. mandatory drug
sentencing and three strikes and you are out, so we now have over 2 million
incarcerated. Over 60% of prison inmates are from minorities! 12.6 % of all black
males in their late twenties are in jail; 3.6% of Hispanic men and 1.7% of white men
of that age are serving time! (Associated Press, April 24, 2005) Something is wrong
with this picture. For one thing, the public and politicians rely on punishment (long
sentences in prison) and doesnt even research rehabilitation. Many prisoners are not
serious or violent. About 7,500 youth under 18 are in state prisons or local jails.
Many prisoners have mental illness or psychiatric problems and get little or no
treatment. Each year in prison costs the public on average about $35,000, in other
words about $115 from every adult and child in the state. The cost I mention doesnt
include the loss of productivity at work and for the family. We could send an inmate
to college for about half as much!
Society doesnt try prevention
Violence comes in many forms and in many situations. On the extreme end of the
scale, there are mass murderers, serial killers, terrorism, wars, rape and sexual
violence, domestic violence, parent-child or sibling violence, violence by psychotics
and people with antisocial personality disorders, child physical and sexual abuse, and
ethnic or religious groups or nations that go to war. I do not intend to imply that
these acts are similar. Im simply pointing out the wide diversity and regrettable
frequency of violence. Of course, anger is much broader and isnt only expressed in
horrendous eventsit is a part of everyday life. Since the 9/11/2001 attack on the
World Trade Center Towers in New York City, there has been a lot of attention on
preventing violence by terrorists (mostly by capturing or killing the terrorists first)
but little serious research has been done to further our understanding of the causes
or prevention of angry aggression. Much research is needed.
There are many efforts to measure and predict violence (Quinsey, Harris, Rice,
& Cormier, 1998; Spielberger, 2005; DiGiuseppe & Tafrate (2003); Frick & Hare
(2003); or use a search engine), especially in juveniles or in maximum security and
psychiatric institutions. Much better measures and ways to predict violence are
needed. Knowledge about how to prevent aggression in many situations is even
Innate, genetic, hormonal & physical factors
Freud came to believe in a death or aggressive instinct because he saw so
much violence, sadism, war, and suicide. Konrad Lorenz (1966) believed that
species, both animal and human, survived by having an aggressive instinct
which protected their territory and young, and insured only the strongest
individuals survived. The sociobiologists, noting the frequency we go to war,
also suggest that we have inherited an aggressive nature, a tendency to lash
out at anything that gets in our way, a need to dominate and control.
Research has shown that stimulation of certain parts of animals' brains
leads to aggression. Stimulation of other parts stops aggression. We don't
know how this works. In 1966, Charles Whitman killed his wife and mother
because "I do not consider this world worth living in...", then climbed a tower
on the University of Texas campus and fired his rifle at 38 people. He killed
14 before being killed. An autopsy revealed a large tumor in the limbic system
of his brain (where the aggression "centers" are in animal brains). In epileptic
patients with implanted electrodes, in rare cases violence follows stimulation
of certain parts. Abnormal EEG's have been found among repeat offenders
and aggressive people. So, aggression may sometimes have a physical basis.
Brain damage can be caused in many ways (Derlega and Janda, 1981).
Aggression may also have a chemical, hormonal, or genetic basis too.
Steroid users sometimes have intense anger while taking the drug and for a
long time afterwards, called steroid rage. Of course, emotions and
behaviors are to some extent learned but genes play a role in this complex
matrix of causes. A large survey of adopted children has found that living with
an adoptive parent who committed crimes is less risky than merely having the
genes from a person who committed crimes (Mednick, Gabrielli & Hutchings,
1984). The power of human genes is discussed in chapter 4, but, obviously,
within animals certain breeds of dogs, like Pit Bulls, are more vicious than
others. More aggressive breeds can be developed, e.g. rats or fighting bulls.
Maybe we could and should develop kinder, gentler, smarter humans.
One may frequently hear that people with serious mental illness are not more
dangerous than the general population. That is good to hear because there is
such a stigma against mental illness. However, according to Janssen
(http://www.medscape.com/viewprogram/2013_pnt), institutions that treat
the seriously disturbed, e.g. schizophrenia, bipolar, character disorders, and
substance abuse, report more violence during treatment and during follow-
up. As you might expect, patients who are hostile-suspicious, agitated, and
delusional are the most likely to be violent. Often the target is a family
member. Over half of Mental Health professionals have been assaulted by a
patient at least once (that wasnt true in my case).
As more studies of genes are being done, a complex interaction is being found
of specific genes with specific neurotransmitters, such as serotonin, or with
enzymes, such as monoamine oxidase A, which regulate mood and
aggression. Moreover, researchers believe they have found that traumatic life
experiences, such as being abused, have an impact on specific genes which,
in turn, increase the likelihood of anti-social behavior (Terri Moffitt, Kings
College London; Evan Deneris, Case Western Reserve University, School of
Medicine). Such findings are not useable now but they suggest future
Other physiological factors may be involved. Possible examples: high
testosterone (male sex hormone) is associated with more unfaithfulness,
more sex, more divorce, more competitiveness, and anti-social behavior.
Remember too that in the Introduction to this chapter it was mentioned that
the amount of testosterone available to the fetus influenced the length of
fingers which is related to physical aggressiveness. It is also known that a
viral infection, called rabies, causes violent behavior (pain causes
aggression). About 90% of women report being irritable before menstruation.
Furthermore, 50% of all crimes by women in prison occur during their
menstrual period or premenstrual period. By chance only 29% of crimes
would have occurred during those eight days. Hypoglycemia (low blood
sugar) increases during the premenstrual period and it too causes irritability.
Reportedly some women have a stronger sexual attraction to masculine men
when they are ovulating. About 3 times in a 1000 a male inherits an extra X
or Y chromosome, so they are XYY or XXY, instead of XY. At one time it was
thought that XYY and XXY males committed more violent crimes. Now it
appears that this isn't true but these males are arrested earlier and more
often. So we can't forget our inheritance. There is so much we do not know
Another example: Little is known about the thrill-like reactions some people report
during vicious, seemingly senseless crimes, such as murder. There are cases in
which the killer seems to really enjoy the killing process, even experiencing an
emotional high. We dont know if that is just a physical thrill or if it is the
psychological/emotional consequence of exercising the ultimate power of one person
over another person. Perhaps there is some confusion of physical brutality with a
sexual thrill. But it seems likely that the high, when it actually happens and
regardless of its source, could be a reinforcement for violence. In a similar way
psychotic disorders or brain disorders may lead to strange and violent urges,
sometimes taking the form of seeming like instructions from God to do bad things. A
common outcome is that such a violator is judged by a court to be a bad or evil
person (see above discussion of evil) responsible for his/her actions and, at the
same time, is judged to have a psychotic brain disease with crazy thoughts,
despicable urges, and abnormal physical conditions that he/she can hardly seem
responsible for. Our better legal minds have not yet solved this logical conflict
between the person and the the disease or between the mind and the brain.
In all of these possibilities--instinct, heredity, hormones, or brain
dysfunction--the aggression occurs without apparent provocation from the
environment (although there is almost always a "target"). According to some
of these theories, the need or urge to be aggressive is boiling within each of
us and seeks opportunities to express itself. There is also clear evidence that
alcohol consumption and hotter temperatures release aggression, but no one
thinks there is something in alcohol or heat that generates meanness. The
socialization process, i.e. becoming a mature person, involves taming these
destructive, savage, self-serving urges that probably helped us humans
survive one million years ago but threatens our survival today.
Is it just mans nature? Or his raging hormones? In any case, it is not
Some psychologists believe that the evolutionary development of males
resulted in their being genetically programmed to feel an urgent need to have
status and childrento reproduce his genes and to build resources within his
control. One way to be successful at that is to be violent, i.e. to take what he
wants, to kill other men who are competing for the females one desires, to kill
the women who are leaving them, are uncooperative, or are unable to have
desirable children, etc. Men kill their mates much more often than women.
David Buss (2005) says these self-serving drives became mans nature
because they paid off to the murderers for thousands of years. His theory is
based in part on 400,000+ FBI files of men who have killed. For example,
Buss found that 50% of the women killed by their husbands were murdered
within 2 months of separating. And that the other man is also at high risk
when he tries to take another mans mate. The focus is more on acquiring
some very aggressive urges, rather than on controlling irrational impulses.
Another explanation of bad men is based on the rather unscientific sounding
notion of just being born bad. Yet, this is a psychiatrist writing about the
con or cheat or psychopath or irresponsible black sheep of the family being
diagnosed as an Antisocial Personality Disorder. Dr. Donald Black (2000) has
written a book trying to explain in more scientific detail the genetic and
biological causes of the criminal mind and the sociopaths lack of a
conscience. Black discusses the warning signs in children and various ways of
medically treating the disorder. There are about seven million Americans with
this psychopathic disorder. Several books have been written over the years
about this disturbing but intriguing malady.
Just as women have trouble going through menopause, it is believed that
men too suffer from fluctuating hormones and stress, maybe as many as 30%
of them. The author, Jed Diamond (2005), calls it the Irritable Male Syndrome
and writes to explain the complex causes and the possible treatments. Men
tend to view emotions as feminine, so it isnt seen as manly to feel
depressed. We men cover over sadness with anger or workaholism or alcohol
addiction or domestic strife. Women have twice as much depression as men
and men have five times as much alcohol abuse and antisocial behavior as
women. Under stress women seek help, talk, cry and bitch; under stress men
feel mistreated, lose their cool, get angry, and become grouchy.
If any of these descriptions fit you, reading one of these books might be
helpful. Many other books are recommended in this chapter. For the female
sex, an older book that analyzes anger in women and effectively focuses on
turning anger into a constructive force in ones life is Harriet Lerners, The
Dance of Anger.
Any observer of human emotions recognizes that certain circumstances
and actions by others seem to make us mad. When we are intentionally hurt,
insulted, cheated, deceived, or made fun of--all these things arouse anger
and aggression (Byrne & Kelley, 1981) and distrustful people have more of
these experiences. In each case we had hoped for more--for more
consideration, more fairness, more understanding. We were frustrated, i.e.
prevented from achieving some desired goal. Some theorists believe that
anger just naturally results from frustration. This is called the frustration-
Our frustration will be more intense if our goal is highly desirable, if we
"get close" to our goal and expect to get it, if the barrier to our goal
unexpectedly appears and seems unjustified or unfair, and if we "take things
personally" (Aronson, 1984; Berkowitz, 1989). There are several physiological
reactions that accompany frustration, including higher blood pressure,
sweating, and greater energy. Psychosomatic symptoms, such as heart
disease, occur more often in people who are cynics and distrustful but hold in
their anger. Some of us explode, others swallow feelings. Our blood pressure
sometimes goes up more when we explode, at other times it goes up more
when we swallow the feelings, depending on the situation. The more
physiologically damaging anger reactions seem to occur under two extreme
conditions, namely, when we feel utterly helpless, or, the opposite, when we
have overly optimistic expectations of reaching unreachable goals.
It is obvious that even though we are frustrated and feel angry, we may
not become aggressive--not if such a response might result in our being
injured or rejected or fired. Yet, if you think of anger as a drive, an urge
inside striving for expression, then merely deciding to placate your boss or an
obnoxious football player doesn't do anything to reduce your anger (indeed,
probably increases it). We can learn to control our anger but as a basic drive
it remains there seeking some expression. That's the theory (both Freud and
Dollard and Miller, 1950).
Displacement of anger
There are two implications of this theory (both seriously questioned
The unexpressed anger will spill out in other directions
(displacement). For example, Dollard and Miller described a
teenage boy who was unable to go on a trip because his friend
had a cold. Not long after this he got into a big fight with his
little sister. This displaced aggression is directed away from the
real target and towards a safer target, called a scapegoat. This
provides a partial release of the pent up frustration but the
initial disappointment may never be admitted and experienced
fully. Indeed, displacement can also be a defense against
recognizing the real source of anger (see chapter 5).
Displacement is referred to several times in this chapter,
especially under prejudice.
When the angry feelings build up inside, presumably like
pressure in a hydraulic system, it is thought by many therapists
to be relieving to express the feelings and get them completely
"off your chest." This is called venting or catharsis, a
cleansing of the system. Early in Freud's career, psychoanalytic
therapy depended heavily on catharsis--uncovering old
emotional traumas and venting those feeling until we had some
understanding of the internal stress and a thorough draining of
the pent up emotions. It is a popular and common notion that
feelings need to be expressed openly and completely. Clearly,
when a child wants something he/she can't have, it is likely to
cry, get angry, and even hit, i.e. vent feelings. We may not like
it, but we see the frustration as an understandable reaction.
However, considerable recent research has been interpreted in such a way
as to raise doubts about the value of trying to drain off our anger. First of all,
it became pretty clear that watching violent behavior (films, TV, sports)
carried out by others increases our own aggressive responses rather than
draining off our anger (Bandura, 1973). It seems reasonable that seeing
aggression acted out on the screen might provide a model and some
encouragement to an already angry person. Certainly, watching a film is not
the same as a catharsis in therapy, where a painful, personal experience is
relived in full fury with the specific intention of emptying the person of toxic
Hokanson and others (Forest & Hokanson, 1975; Murray & Feshbach,
1978) have studied how to reduce anger arising from being shocked by an
aggressive partner in an experiment. When given a choice among (1) being
friendly to the mean partner, (2) shocking one's self, and (3) shocking the
partner back, only attacking back (with shock) relieved the subject's
emotional reaction (unless they were depressed--see chapter 6). However, in
later studies, where the aggressive partner's behavior (# of shocks) could be
modified by being friendly to him or by being self-punitive, both of these
actions yielded a "cathartic-like" emotional relief without anger being
released. So, there seems to be a variety of ways we can learn to handle our
anger, including learning various means of controlling the aggressor.
Again, being "friendly" to someone who has hurt you and shocking
yourself hardly seem to be the same kind of emotionally draining experience
as a thorough catharsis or getting revenge (see next section).
Being aggressive and mean towards someone who has angered us does
make us feel better but also makes us more inclined to hurt them even more
later. Why is this? Probably because being hostile is easier the second time
and still easier the 100th time; you've overcome your inhibitions against
aggression; you've learned about aggression and its payoffs. But there are
other reasons. Aronson (1984) points out that our negative feelings increase
towards another person or group as we hurt them. The snowball effect
between thoughts and actions goes like this: "We are hurting them. We are
decent people. Therefore, they must be bad." So we put them down more,
justifying hurting them more, leading to more negative thoughts about them,
etc. This mental put down-behavioral violence cycle occurs in abuse and in
prejudice, which we will consider in more detail later.
My conclusions about catharsis
Is catharsis helpful or harmful? The problem is, as I see it, that catharsis
can mean many things. Several scientists (Aronson, 1984; Lewis & Bucher,
1992; Bandura, 1973; Tavris, 1984) have sloppily accepted many diverse
acts as being "catharsis" and prematurely concluded that all kinds of catharsis
are ineffective or harmful. What the behaviorists call catharsis (almost any
expression or even observation of emotion) is hardly therapeutic catharsis.
For instance, Bushman (2002) suggests that catharsis (or venting) is
something like when he had a group of college students hit a punching bag
while thinking about another student who had harshly critiqued their essay.
When the study found that venting increased that groups anger, the
experimenter concluded that catharsis builds anger, not reduces it. Freud
would see it differently. In a similar distorted way, Tavris clearly equates a
dirty, abusive, vicious marital fight with catharsis. Catharsis is not just an
explosion of emotions. Unfortunately, this equation is naive and implies that
therapists using catharsis might even advocate abusive violence.
What is catharsis in therapy? Well, most Freudians would say it was the
expression of repressed (unconsciously held back) feelings that are causing
problems. Sometimes the initial traumatic situation (often from childhood) is
vividly relived, called an abreaction. Most non-Freudian psychotherapists
would consider catharsis to be the intense expression (in therapy or alone) of
conscious or unconscious emotions for the specific purpose of feeling better,
gaining insight, and reducing the unwanted emotion. It doesn't involve
watching a model of aggression; it never involves actually hurting someone.
Published descriptions of therapy provide thousands of examples of
catharsis. Here's one. In the early 1880's, Josef Breuer, Freud's friend, was
treating a bright, attractive young lady, Anna O. Among many other
symptoms, she had a phobia of drinking water from a glass. She didn't
understand the fear. Under hypnosis, Anna O. recalled being disgusted when
she saw her tutor's dog (she hated both the tutor and the dog) drink from a
glass. After Anna O. expressed her intense anger about the tutor, she
immediately understood her rejecting the water (just like she rejected the
tutor) and she could thereafter drink water from a glass. None of the current
behavioral research has studied such a "cathartic" experience as Anna O's,
probably because this kind of repressed experience can't be scheduled as a
30-minute lab assignment for Intro Psych students; it can be recorded in
therapy, however. Furthermore, a straight-forward, easily controlled
procedure for venting one's anger is available (see chapter 12) and could be
researched readily. It focuses on reducing anger, not learning aggression. The
same process occurs when you feel better after letting off steam with a
I was angry with my friend:
I told my wrath, my wrath did end.
I was angry with my foe;
I hid my wrath, my wrath did grow.
I suspect intention and expectation of catharsis are crucially important in
determining the outcome, e.g. if you beat a punching bag an hour a day
thinking how you will punch out people you don't like, I suspect you will
become more hostile and aggressive. If you punch the bag thinking that at
the end of an hour you will be completely exhausted and cleansed of your
hatred and will have a better understanding and more willingness to forgive
the irritating person, I suspect you will become less agitated and aggressive.
That needs to be proven in the lab.
One final observation about catharsis: many violent crimes are committed
by people described as ordinarily being gentle, passive, quiet, easy-going,
and good natured. Naturally, this surprises everyone. Likewise, many
psychological tests describe persons who have committed violent acts as
ordinarily being over-controlled, i.e. not emotional or impulsive and very
inhibited about expressing aggression against anyone. Thus, it seems that
they may "store up" aggression until it is impossible to contain and, then,
they explode. Many of us, who have been parents, have had a similar
experience, namely, holding our tongue until we over-react with a verbal
assault on the child.
The research about hostility suggests that a safe, appropriate way of
releasing our anger is badly needed. Athletics are supposed to serve this
function for some people but the data is contradictory. Byrne and Kelley
(1981) say athletes are less aggressive; Aronson (1984) says they are more.
In fact, Walker (1990) says calls to domestic violence centers go up after the
man's team loses (displacement?). So, watching certain athletics may
increase hostility. There is much we do not know about anger, displacement,
catharsis, and the means of controlling our anger.
At the very least, research psychologists and psychotherapists should
more clearly define "catharsis." It is not playing or watching sports, writing
stories about aggression, fighting in a war, shocking someone in an
experiment, watching someone hit a Bobo doll, or watching TV violence. It is
well documented that watching, fantasizing, or acting out violence increases
the probability that you will be more violent in the future. In contrast, the end
result of catharsis is, in many cases, peace and calm, not aggression. Averill
& Nunley (1993) say expressing emotions in therapy can change a person's
view and interpretation of the situation. Also, expressing an emotion, such as
anger, can result in finding ways to change the irritating situation. Once the
released emotion is discussed with a therapist or friend, you are in a better
position to make plans for coping with the feelings and the circumstances.
Obviously, some people can calm themselves down, i.e. reduce their anger.
Anger control and health seem to be related to feeling in control (see self-
efficacy in chapter 14), trusting and accepting others or at least not seeing
them as mean, selfish, and exploitative, and being able to assertively express
our negative feelings (see chapter 13). These are skills many of us need to
learn (Lewis & Bucher, 1992).
A historical overview of the Frustration-Aggression Theory
When the frustration-aggression hypothesis was proposed and researched by
psychologists, Dollard and Miller, almost 65 years ago, it was generally accepted as a
statement of clinical judgment at the time and it opened the way to extensive
research of these important topics. The theory suggests that frustration creates a
readiness and an urge to aggress and it implies that the act of aggression is always
preceded by frustration. It sounded like a useable causal relationship: when you see
aggression, go looking for the needs and wants that have been frustrated. Or when
you want to reduce the aggression, try to reduce the frustration. In the intervening
65 years hundreds of studies have been done. So, today, psychologists recognize the
old theory still has some general validity but few would claim this simple theory
explains all acts of aggression. There are many causes and reasons for aggression,
not just frustration. Some people will be aggressive just for money or other pay offs.
Others will do things to make someone feel very uncomfortable just because an
authority told them to. In a rather common case, people go to war without being
personally frustrated but because politicians urge that radical action (which may end
their lives). On the other hand, seemingly real and serious frustration will not cause
some people to be aggressive. Facing barriers to reaching an important goal may
lead to other responses, not just to aggression; some might respond with useless or
helpless responses and others might calmly respond with efforts to remove the
Great complexity has been discovered in the frustration-aggression situation (Geen &
Donnerstein, 1998). When any situation or human response is studied intensely and
scientifically, you might expect the outcome to be complex. Humans do not have a
fixed specific response to frustration, but an angry, aggressive response, among
others, is common enough that the old hypothesis can still help us try to understand
and change behavior in this situation. Frustration may simply involve an arousal of
our energy level and this increased drive level may increase the intensity of a host of
different reactions, some wanted and some not.
Social Learning Theory
This theory denies that humans are innately aggressive and that
frustration automatically leads to aggression. Instead Bandura (1973) argues
that aggression is learned in two basic ways: (1) from observing aggressive
models and (2) from receiving and/or expecting payoffs following aggression.
The payoffs may be in the form of (a) stopping aggression by others, (b)
getting praise or status or some other goal by being aggressive, (c) getting
self-reinforcement and self praise, and (d) reducing tension. The Social
Learning Theory also incorporates cognitive processes, like rational problem-
solving, "trial runs" in fantasy to see what might happen if I did _____ , and
the self-control procedures of self-observation, self-evaluation, and self-
reinforcement. Even children are able to control their aggression if they have
some understanding of why someone else frustrated them (Mallick &
McCandless, 1966). We have discussed Social Learning Theory in chapters 4,
5, and 6.
We all frequently face an environment that presents frustrating,
unpleasant experiences as well as cues that suggest there would be certain
payoffs for different courses of action. Inside us are various emotional
responses, such as anger, various motivations and urges to seek certain
payoffs, and complex cognitive processes for weighing the pros and cons for
different alternative responses, including aggression or violence, passive
withdrawal, depression, increased striving to succeed, reasonable "assertive"
handling of the situation, and other possible responses. Eventually, the
person chooses a response and acts, and then the result of that response is
observed and evaluated in terms of its effectiveness. If the response is
reinforced, it is likely to be used again.
Tavris (1984), a spokesperson for this point of view, argues that anger is
a social event, a way of saying "Hey, I'm hurting and you're in my way." She
criticizes (a) the ethnologists' instincts, (b) the Freudians' unconscious
motives, (c) the clinicians' unresearched opinions based on sick people, and
(d) the therapists' and pop-psych idea of expressing "built up" anger. She
says all these views erroneously suggest that anger is beyond our control and
overlook the real causes of frustration. Tavris believes in human choice and
self-control. She thinks we continue to use our violence because "aggression
pays" and because the other theories provide excuses for being angry.
There is no doubt that aggression pays off. Parents who yell and threaten
punishment get results. The child who hits the hardest gets the toy. The
brother who is willing to be the most vicious in a fight wins. The teacher who
gives the hardest tests and threatens to flunk the most students gets the
most study time from students. The spouse who threatens to get the maddest
gets his/her way. The male who acts the most macho and aggressive gets the
praise of certain groups of males.
It is not necessary that the aggressor be especially mean to get his/her
way. The slightest overt hint of anger can communicate. Suppose you and
your boy/girlfriend want to do different things some evening. The brief frown,
the "roll" of the eyes, the comment "Oh, all right" may clearly communicate,
"Okay, have it your way but I'm going to be pissed all evening." Such a
message is a powerful threat--and often an effective one, proving once again
that, unfortunately, "aggression pays off."
Human nature vs. learned behavior
I'm sure you recognize the old nature-nurture issue in these discussions.
The difficulty, as I see it, is that both sides over-simplify and want to claim all
the influence; i.e. on the one hand, the genes-instincts-hormones (biological
determinism) theorists imply that hostility is "human nature." Indeed, 60% of
Americans buy this idea, saying "there will always be wars, it is human
nature." How sad that we are not better educated. No wonder the U.S. has
used military force 150 times since 1850. There is, of course, a lot of fighting
between countries, tribes, religions, spouses, and parents and children. But
there is no evidence that we humans have inherited more of a tendency to
dislike, fight, be violent, or to make war than to like, trust, be cooperative, or
to make friends. Just because humans are biologically capable of being selfish
and mean does not mean it is inevitable; we can control our lives. Too many
people believe humans are violent because we are naturally and unavoidably
aggressive. This widely held theory provides us with harmful expectations,
self-fulfilling prophesies, and with excuses for being aggressive (Kohn, 1988).
On the other hand, the currently popular cognitive-environmental
theorists emphasize that behavior is a result of a process of learning from
observing what actions pay off, what works. This theory over-simplifies
human behavior in another way, namely, by neglecting the biological-
physiological aspects, the emotions and needs, the unmindful "thought"
processes (traditions, habits, unthinking routines), the unconscious processes
(perceptual distortion, childhood experiences, unconscious resentments,
motives, defense mechanisms--like displacement), and perhaps other
significant factors influencing our behavior. For instance, Berkowitz (1993)
says sudden unpleasant situations automatically generates negative
emotions, including primitive anger feelings and hostile or flight impulses,
even before the person has time to think about what has happened or what to
do about it. Moreover, I am not ready to dismiss the many social-sexual
needs that create conflicts for us as being purely "cognitive." And, I refuse to
believe that the prejudice, violence, hatred, and greed that abounds in the
world (and the love, acceptance, and altruism) are simply a result of our
cognitive processes. How do you cognitively explain the raging parent who
beats his/her 3-month-old infant to death? By the way, a moderate-to-large
percentage of parents have thoughts of hurting their infant or very small
children. These intrusive thoughts may be very upsetting to some people but
very few of the people who become obsessive about it are dangerous to their
children; they know these thoughts are not predictions of what they will do
(see discussion in Child Abuse later). Nevertheless, cognitive theory is a very
hopeful theory if not a complete one.
Sorry for making things complicated but you need to prepare for a
complex world. The good news is that there is overwhelming evidence that
humans can, in the right circumstances and with appropriate training, be
kinder and gentler by using their higher cognition. But, thus far, we seem to
be loosing the battle against violence, as we will see in the next topic.
Aggression and child rearing practices
By the time we are five years of age, we have learned to be kind and
caring or aggressive. What is associated with an angry, aggressive child? Four
factors are: (1) a child with a hyperactive, impulsive temperament, (2) a
parent who has negative, critical attitudes towards the child, (3) a parent who
provides poor supervision and permits the child to use aggression as a means
of gaining power, and (4) a parent who uses power-tactics (punishment,
threats, and violent or loud outbursts) to get their way (Olweus, 1980). Once
a peaceful or hostile way of responding is established (by 5) it tends to
remain stable. Olweus (1979) suggests aggressiveness is about as stable as
So, the best way to predict that a young adult will behave aggressively is
to observe his/her early behavior. Aggression at age 8 correlates .46 with
aggression at age 30! Children who were "pro-social," i.e. popular and avoid
aggression, at age 8 were, 22 years later, doing well in school and at work,
had good mental health, and were successful socially (Eron, 1987). Children
who steal, aggress, use drugs, and have conduct problems with peers, family
or in school, and then conceal the problems by lying, are the most likely to
become delinquent (Loeber, 1990). Of course, many such children become
good citizens, so don't give up. But society, schools, parents, and the children
could prevent much of the later aggression if they made the effort to detect
the problems early and offered help. It is crucial that we all learn "pro-social"
(nice) behavior, starting early in life. Caution: Physical punishment may
teach that violence is an acceptable way to solve problems.
Aggressive children often come from aggressive homes, in which not only
are their parents and others within the family physical with each other but
even the child's own aggressiveness has been harshly punished (Patterson,
1976; Byrne & Kelley, 1981). Research has documented similar aggression
spreads from grandparents to parents to grandchildren. In addition, outside
the family we learn more hostile ways of responding to frustration, such as in
schools, on the play grounds, from friends, and especially from TV, movies
and books. It has been demonstrated that we can learn to be aggressive by
merely viewing a short film that shows aggressiveness as an acceptable
response (Bandura, 1973). So, one doesn't have to have hostile parents or be
subjected to noticeable frustration prior to becoming aggressive. One can just
see aggression and then imitate it. That's why TV is so scary.
The impact of TV has been studied extensively; it makes us more
aggressive (Geen, 1978; Singer & Singer, 1981). This isn't surprising
considering the average child of 15 has seen about 15,000 humans violently
destroyed on TV. Even though the bad guy (like the aggressive child) is often
beaten up by the good guy (the parent), the implication is that aggression is
acceptable if it's for a good cause (Derlega and Janda, 1981). So, we are all
exposed to a myriad of responses to frustration, but in many ways the
message, again, is: "aggression gets results." Examples: the handsome TV
star is often quick and powerful with his fists; every night the news
documents that the most powerful nations win the wars and that the giant
corporations eliminate jobs or do whatever makes a profit and win.
Recent research found that 3,385 children and teens were killed by guns in
one year. Guns have a special allure for boys. Marjorie Hardy
email@example.com, Journal of Developmental and Behavioral Pediatrics,
2003) observed boys, aged 9 to 15, who were told to not touch an air gun
when left alone. But many did touch it and then denied they touched it. This
was especially true of the younger boys. Bingenheimer, Brennan & Earls
(2005) reported that just observing firearm violence and aggression doubles
the risk that the young observer will become a perpetrator of violence in the
next few years. So, personal experiences in the environment are additional
important causes of violence. Male teens with diagnoses of Conduct Disorder
or Behavioral Disorder are more likely to break the law and carry a gun. That
is a dangerous combination.
Lastly, Ill just mention that violent video games are sold by the millions,
mostly to teens and young men. Even the U.S. military uses violent games to
entertain and train new recruits. These real-life violent games increase
(http://www.apa.org/releases/videogames.html). Likewise, there are many R-
rated movies being seen by children and teens. About 28% of 10 to 14-year-
olds say they have seen especially violent films depicting rape, sodomy, and
brutal killings. The focus of the research is on males but according to Join
aggressive after a childhood of watching violence on TV (Dr. Linda
Lewandowski, University of Michigan).
Self-hatred and self-reports describing anger
Theodore Rubin (1975) discusses self-hatred, defined as disliking any part
of our selves. It involves all of our distortions of our real self, any self-put
down, or any exaggeration of one's goodness or ability. When we distort or
deny what we really are, it suggests we don't like ourselves. This dislike of
self starts in infancy. Babies have all kinds of habits, needs, and emotions
that parents prohibit: sloppiness, anger, greediness, jealousy, self-centered
demands, etc. As a child, we all learned that parts of ourselves were bad. This
self-hatred becomes automated in the form of depression, which both
punishes us and drowns out other feelings too.
Parents who are rejecting, neglectful, overdemanding, overprotective,
overly punitive, or overbearing increase the self-hatred in a child. "I'm not
good enough" becomes a central part of the self-concept. Such a child may be
a "good girl/boy" but fear and rage may exist within, even when feeling
empty and lifeless. Sometimes the self-hatred is conscious but the connection
between self-criticism and other problems (depression, anxiety, and fatigue)
is unconscious. Sometimes the self-hatred is unconscious and we feel badly
without knowing why.
James Averill (1983) views emotions as primarily a social phenomenon.
He studied self-reports about aggression: most people report getting mildly to
moderately angry anywhere from several times a day to several times a
week. However, the most common reactions to irritating situations were (1)
activities to calm themselves down (60%), (2) talking about the incident to
the offender (39%), or (3) talking to a third party (59%) without getting
angry. Only 49% got verbally aggressive with the person who made them
mad; even fewer--10%--got physically aggressive (1/3 of these incidents
were with children). So, anger doesn't lead to much actual aggression;
indeed, in 19% of the cases it lead to being "extra friendly." People feel like
being verbally aggressive (82%) or physically aggressive (40%) but a wide
variety of nonaggressive responses occur instead. So, your extra friendly co-
worker may be angry about something!
Over half the time, we get mad at a loved one, relative, or friend, so
anger has, in a sense, more to do with love than with hatred. What usually
(85%) makes us angry is that we feel the other person has done us wrong.
They are at fault; they are to blame for interfering with our plans, our wishes,
or for offending or insulting us. So, what are the reported consequences of
getting angry? Primarily positive outcomes! 76% of the "targets" of anger
said they gained some understanding of their faults and 44% gained some
respect (29% lost) for the angry person. 48% of the time anger strengthened
the relationship (35% became more distant). No wonder we get angry so
often. It certainly has payoffs; however, this research overlooks the misery of
constant anger or constant suppression of anger.
The true measure of a man is how he treats someone who
can do him absolutely no good.
-----Ann Landers, American Advice Columnist
Mental processes that can generate anger/aggression
If we perceive and label another type of person or their actions as
offensive or dangerous to us, then we are more prone to be aggressive
towards that type of person. Just like a hungry person thinks more often of
food, if we are angry, we see more signs of aggression and suspect more
"enemies." It has been said, "a prejudiced person sees a Jew, a communist,
or a 'nigger' behind every bush and beneath every bed."
Our society and our subcultures provide us with stereotypes that direct
our resentment, prejudice, and discrimination towards certain types of
people. Prejudice tends to grow: if we dislike someone, we are more likely to
hurt them, and if we hurt them, we are more likely to come to dislike them
even more (Scherer, Aveles, & Fischer, 1975).
For example, prior to the shooting of students (4 killed, 9 wounded) by
the National Guard at Kent State in 1970, students across the nation had
referred to the police as "pigs" (i.e. stupid, coarse, and brutal) and the police
had seen students as "hippy radicals" (i.e. long-haired, drug-using, sexually
immoral, dirty, foul-talking, violent ingrates). A day or two before sending in
6,000 troops, the governor of Ohio had called student demonstrators
"nightriders" and worse than "communists" and promised to eradicate them;
President Nixon called demonstrating students "bums;" Vice-President Agnew
commented, "we can, however, afford to separate them [student radicals]
from our society with no more regret than we should feel over discarding
rotten apples from a barrel." It is easy to see how the stage was set for
violence. Furthermore, after the shootings, the National Guard action was
supported by many people who made comments such as these: "it's about
time we showed the bastards who's in charge" and "they should have shot
100 of them" (Scherer, Abeles, & Fischer, 1975). Obviously, our thinking
affects our feelings about people and our actions.
Any time a leader speaks in terms of a negative stereotype or we think in
such terms, we are sowing the seeds of violence. Every time we demean
another human, we increase the potential for aggression. Every human being
has a right to be judged on his/her own merits, not on the basis of a
stereotype. Prejudice is discussed more later on.
Disliking people who are different
Research has shown that, in general, we like people like ourselves and
dislike people who are different (Byrne, 1969). We naturally like people who
reward us and dislike people who punish us; and, similarity is rewarding. If
groups are competitive, critical, and punishing of each other, the dislike and
aggression between the groups grow.
Groups and cultures tend to create ingroups and outgroups. Thus, Hitler
used the existing hostility against Jews to unite, motivate, and deceive the
German people in the 1930's. Likewise, the U.S. and Russia used distrust of
each other during the "Cold War" to unite each country into uncooperative,
hostile but mighty nations. And each person is expected to conform to his/her
group's beliefs. Imagine trying during the 1980's to defend communistic ideas
among Archie Bunkers, businessmen, or the Moral Majority. Or try to defend
blacks among whites or whites among blacks--and see the hostility quickly
rise towards you. In short, ingroups are valued. Outgroups are devalued,
stereotyped, and scapegoated.
Sometimes the minority that is discriminated against by the majority
culture turns the anger inward, resulting in self-destructive behavior, such as
low self-esteem, self-blame (like abused women), alcoholism, drug abuse,
and passive-resistance to the dominant culture's ideals of what is success.
Certainly for a white northern European culture to believe that African,
Chinese, and Indian cultures and histories are unimportant and inferior, is to
be ignorant and disrespectful. Being poor is enough to make you mad, but to
have your ancestors deceived, neglected, and disgraced is too much. Let's
hope conditions improve before the wrath is unleashed outward. More about
prejudice later on.
Hating people for no reason
Powerful forces within a group increase the likelihood of aggression. We
feel compelled to believe and act the way our family or group does (see
conformity in chapter 8). We want to be liked by our ingroup. We are taught
to be obedient to authority. Finally, if being in a group relieves us of the
responsibility for our group's decisions and if we can act anonymously
(without being singled out and punished), we humans are very capable of
becoming dangerous and cruel. Every human being should be constantly
aware of the potential injustice and maliciousness that lurks within ourselves
and our groups. See the Milgram study in the next chapter or the Zimbardo
study below if you think I am exaggerating.
In his famous "Prison Experiment," Zimbardo (1973) demonstrated how
ordinary, well-adjusted college students could transform themselves--with no
directions from authorities--in just six days into authoritarian, brutal, sadistic
"prison guards" who enjoyed their power to degrade and punish others. A
good description of this amazing study is given in the Zimbardo site
(http://www.zimbardo.com/), including pictures and a frank admission by the
principle investigator of how emotionally involved he became. In another
study, Zimbardo (1969) found that in secret normally "sweet, mild-mannered
college girls" shocked other girls almost every time they could. He concluded,
"it didn't matter that the fellow student was a nice girl who didn't deserve to
It is not clear why we are or can be so cruel. In the Milgram study, cruelty
was encouraged by an authority, but this was not the case in the Zimbardo
studies. Likewise, Berkowitz (1983) believes violence comes from inside us,
not from group encouragement. The evidence suggests that we may be mean
by following the rules of a violent group or the orders of a violent person or
the urging of a violent feeling inside.
Pain leads to aggression
If two animals are hurt when close to each other, they will frequently start
to fight. This is so common and occurs across so many species, the pain-
aggression connection may be unlearned. However, it is quite clear that past
learning experience can modify the response--many animals prefer to run or
to attack only under certain conditions (Berkowitz, 1983). Berkowitz suggests
that all kinds of unpleasant stimuli lumped together, not just pain or
frustration, give rise to impulsively aggressive tendencies in humans. An
amazing variety of events seem to increase our anger: foul odors, high room
temperatures, cigarette smoke, disgusting scenes, unpleasant interactions
with others, fear, depression, unattractiveness or handicaps in others,
expectation of pain, general discomfort, and merely thinking about punishing
Even though cognition can stop an aggressive impulse (you don't punch
out your dentist), much of the connection between unpleasantness and
aggression escapes our awareness. We all experience pain, frustration, and
lots of unpleasant events and, presumably, as we suffer, we are inclined to be
indiscriminately aggressive. But we can recognize how unreasonable our
anger is. We can recognize that all sources of unpleasantness contribute to
our aggressiveness, making some of our hurtful, punitive impulses as
unreasonable as the rat attacking an innocent cage-mate. Another example,
given by Berkowitz, is when we are suffering from depression, we may
become more hostile. Perhaps increased awareness of our irrationality will
help us be less impulsive, less inclined to blame the nearest human for our
suffering, and more able to control our thoughts (away from revenge and
irritating fantasies), our actions, and our group's aggression. I wonder if the
pain-aggression connection helps explain our high rate of divorce, child
abuse, and our national tendency to quickly replace an old enemy with a new
Internal Dynamics of Aggression
Freud believed the death instinct sometimes gets turned outward, and
then we hurt and offend others and go to war (the opposite of suicide).
Rochlin (1973), another psychoanalyst, believes aggression is our way of
recovering lost pride. Given the common human need to feel powerful and to
think highly of ourselves, any threat to our self-esteem is taken as a hostile
attack. When our pride is hurt, we often attempt to restore our status and
self-esteem by hurting the person who offended us.
Toch (1969) found that 40% of aggressive prisoners had been insecure
and needed some "victory" to prove they were something special. Other
violent men were quick to defend their reputations as tough guys. We, as a
militaristic society, need to know more about why our egos are so easily
offended and how being cruel and violent can inflate a sick ego.
Erich Fromm (1973) defines benign aggression as a brief reaction to
protect ourselves from danger. In contrast, malignant aggression is hurting
others purely for the sadistic pleasure. Fromm believes people feel helplessly
compelled to conform to the rules of society, at work, and to authority
everywhere. This lack of freedom to make decisions and the inability to find
meaning and love in one's life causes resentment and sometimes malignant,
How and where does this hostility show itself? Some people get pleasure
from hurting, killing, and destroying; Hitler was a prime example: he killed 15
to 20 million unarmed Poles, Russians, and Jews. He reportedly planned to
destroy his own country before surrendering. Fromm describes Hitler's life
and says, "There are hundreds of Hitlers among us who would come forth if
their historical hour arrived." In other cases, there is an underlying feeling of
powerlessness which produces a need to be in complete control over a
helpless person. Sadists and rapists are like this. Joseph Stalin, dictator of
Russia from 1929 to 1953, was a famous example; he enjoyed torturing
political prisoners; he killed millions of his own people (when they opposed his
policies); he had wives of his own loyal aides sent to prison (the aides didn't
protest); he enjoyed being deceptive and totally unpredictable. In milder
forms, chauvinists may also be hostile, e.g. the male who puts down his wife
and demands she attend to his every need; the angry, threatening, autocratic
boss or teacher who enjoys seeing the worker or student break into a cold
Boredom is another source of hostility, according to Fromm. When life
loses its meaning because we are only a cog in a wheel, our reaction to the
senselessness and helplessness is anger. We feel cheated; we had hoped for
more in life; the powerlessness hurts. Hurting others or making them mad are
ways of proving one still has power, a means of showing "I'm somebody."
In chapter 6, we saw how one might react to rejection with depression or
with anger. Our own irrational ideas were the causes of these emotions
(Hauck, 1974). It goes like this: I wanted something. I didn't get it. That's
terrible! You shouldn't have frustrated me; you're no good! You should be
punished; I hate you, I'll get revenge!
Hauck described a woman who had been insulted and abused by an
alcoholic husband for 30 years. She hated him. He had wasted enormous
amounts of needed money on drinks. He was self-centered. When she sought
help from a Rational-Emotive therapist, he told her, "Your husband is sick.
You are demanding that he change, but he can't." With the therapist's help
she started to see her husband as emotionally ill instead of mean. She
stopped getting upset and critical or nasty with her husband. As a result, the
husband stopped fighting (but not drinking). The woman realized she had
been insisting that the world (especially her husband) be different than it
was. She had created her own angry misery by saying, "Ain't it awful! Things
must be different." (See chapter 14 for more.)
First, something happens to make us mad--someone cheats or insults us,
a child rebels, our lover shows a lot of attention to someone else. We think
about it a lot; we talk about it; it becomes an obsession, like a movie played
over and over. The more we think about it, the angrier we get. Research
supports this notion. Ebbesen, Duncan, and Konecni (1975) interviewed
recently fired employees and encouraged them to talk about their hostility
towards the company. This talking increased their hostility.
Zillmann (1979) has summarized several studies showing that aggressive
fantasies interfere with the reduction of anger. Moreover, just waiting five
minutes helps women get over their anger, but not men. Zillmann speculates
that men may be more prone than women to ruminate about the
mistreatments they have suffered and/or about their inability (or wished-for
ability) to retaliate against their annoyer. Thus, men hold anger longer than
It is not uncommon to meet a person who is still, years later, seething
with anger towards a former spouse or a tyrannical parent or boss.
Presumably the unpleasant memories maintain the hostility which, in turn,
fuels more aggressive fantasies and perhaps ulcers, distrust of others, and so
There seem to be two elements in anger-building: (1) obsessive hostile
fantasies and (2) a lack of creative imagination or fantasy. For example,
extremely violent persons often ruminate almost continuously about how
awful the hated person is. Also, they think of only violent solutions to the
problem. Sirhan was obsessed with killing Robert Kennedy. On the other
hand, research has consistently shown that people who are frequently
aggressive have a very limited ability to think of different or more creative
ways of handling the angering situation or person (Singer, 1984).
Tavris (1984) says by talking with friends (or a therapist?) about being
upset with someone "you aren't ventilating the anger; you're practicing it."
That isn't necessarily so but it is possible. If the talking (or daydreaming)
reinforces your beliefs of injustice, blame, and evilness in the other person,
your anger increases. If the talking (or thinking) provides more understanding
of the disliked person and more ideas about how to cope, your anger
decreases. Also, if you believe talking calms you down, it probably does.
Put-down games and psychological put-downs
Eric Berne (1964), founder of Transactional Analysis (TA), wrote a very
popular book, Games People Play. One kind of game is to put-down others,
which certainly is aggressive. The payoffs of such games are building one's
ego, denying responsibility for one's problems, reaffirming one's opinion that
other people are "not OK," and expressing some of one's anger. Some of
these put-down games involve blaming others ("If it weren't for you"),
demeaning others ("I know your blemish," "Rapo--men only want sex," "Yes,
but you're wrong"), and revenge ("Now I've got you, you SOB"). See chapter
According to TA, it is the "child" part of us that enjoys playing these
hurtful games, which are carried out unconsciously. The rational "adult" part
of us may never become aware of the destructive, hostile games being played
by the "child" part. But if the "adult" part can gain some insight, it could stop
the games. If insight happened, however, there would surely be an internal
struggle between the "adult" and the "child," resulting in stress and
irritability. Let's suppose your "child" part likes to flirt, partly because the
flirting (if you are a woman) reaffirms your belief that men are unfaithful
animals or (if you are a man) that women are suckers for a smooth "line;"
both are hostile put-down games. If your logical "adult" realizes your "child's"
motives and stops the "child" from playing these games, the "child" is likely to
resent losing some of its fun. But at least the aggression-generating thoughts
and experiences of the game are eliminated.
Games are unconscious but we may consciously put-down or degrade or
insult another person by "mind reading" or "psychologizing," i.e. attempting
to analyze and explain their behavior. First of all, most people resent
someone else (unless it's their therapist) telling them what they really think
or feel and what their unconscious motives really are. Secondly, many of
these psychological speculations are negative (saintly motives don't need to
be repressed). Alan Gurman and David Rice, well known marital therapists,
provide many examples:
Psychological explanations: "He is still a baby and wants to be
cared for." "She needs attention all the time, she flirts with
everyone." "He is afraid I'll be more successful than he is,
that's why he wants me to stay home." "You're just trying to
make me mad so you'll have an excuse to go drinking."
Psychological name-calling: "You're paranoid." "You're a latent
homo." "You're a hypochondriac--it's all in your head."
Accusations about the other person's ability or desire to
change: "You're sick, you must want to be unhappy." "You
don't care about me, you don't want to change." "You just don't
care how I feel."
Accusations of poor insight: "I have more and more to do at
work, why can't you understand that and stop bitching?" "Can't
you see I'm upset and want to be left alone." "You just don't
get it, do ya?"
Blaming permanent characteristics (or human nature) in the
other person: "He has a terrible temper." "She is super
sensitive." "All women are scatterbrained." "Men are so
insensitive." "Boy, are you stupid!"
Psychological concepts are often misused. These aggressive remarks are
likely to hurt others and harm relationships. The attitude underlying such
statements is not acceptance, tolerance, understanding and unconditional
positive regard. It is anger and hostility. One of the major tasks of a student
of psychology is to, first, recognize these resentments and pet peeves, then
learn to understand the causes of the resented behaviors. To truly understand
is to forgive.
Anger and anxiety, guilt, depression, dependency, and sex
There are very complex interactions between anger and several other
emotions. Examples: Most of us feel anxious or scared when we get angry.
We know there are risks involved; we might lose control and others might
retaliate. Also, whether we are angry or not, it is scary when someone
becomes angry at us. Yet, in some situations we would never express
ourselves unless we got angry, so aggression can also help us overcome fear.
So, we actually need to be intolerant of injustice.
Hostility and abuse can cause painful guilt; the pain of being an abuser or
abused can cause more anger; two aggressive people are likely to form a
"vicious circle." We have already seen that feeling put-down may cause us to
aggress in order to inflate our ego.
It is a classical assumption in psychiatry that a weak, submissive,
dependent person is resentful of this situation (chapter 8). How many
subservient wives and selfless mothers have experienced resentment when
the women's movement increased their awareness? Millions. However, the
"super nice" giver, who often feels guilty for not giving enough, hardly has
time to recognize his/her resentment for not getting enough appreciation or
Another classical substitution of one feeling for another is when a person
cries, a sign usually of sadness, instead of showing anger. My experience in
counseling is that when a woman cries, she is really mad (about 75% of the
time). Check this out.
Anger turned inward on the self is another classical dynamic explaining
depression (chapter 6). Some psychologists have suggested the reverse,
namely, that the pain of depression causes anger. All these connections are
There are some interesting, often tragic, relationships between sexual
feelings and aggression: bondage, sadism, rape, masochism, and the use of
sexual swear words when angry. Impotence and frigidity commonly reflect
anger. Pornography and prostitution are usually for men's pleasure and profit,
but these activities degrade and abuse women. It has been shown, for
instance, that males are more aggressive towards females than males, after
watching an erotic film. The relationship between erotica and aggression is
complex, however. Mildly sexual pictures, like in Playboy, or in movies that
are seen as pleasing, seem to distract us and reduce our aggression.
Disgusting or crude pornography increases our aggression (Byrne & Kelley,
Yet, there are some couples who report their best sex is after getting
angry. Bry (1976) suggests that many sexual activities are aggressive--"love
bites," hickeys, scratching, and vigorous intercourse. She recommends,
among other things, that married couples try going to bed to wipe out their
anger; it may work for some people but not everyone.
Lastly, it is commonly believed by therapists that one emotion can hide or
replace another. Examples: Transactional Analysis describes a game called
"Uproar," in which one person starts an argument to avoid intimacy or
dependency or sex. Likewise, a partner, who expects to be rejected, may
fight and dump the other person first. A teenager and his/her opposite sexed
parent may deny the dependency, closeness and/or sexuality between them
by fighting. It may also work in the opposite direction: the child would rather
be fighting with a parent than be neglected. In some relationships,
complaining or arguing becomes a pastime, a way of getting attention from
the partner who otherwise might take you for granted.
The effects of gender roles and cultural differences
Boys have far more temper tantrums than girls, and their tantrums last
longer. Boys and men, in general, recover from an irritating experience more
slowly than females, partly because they have stronger physiological
reactions to frustration than women. It is the action that differentiates males
from females, i.e. men and women apparently feel angry about the same
things and to the same degree (Averill, 1983). However, beginning at age 3
or 4, boys are more aggressive than girls. Boys are also aggressed against
and punished more than girls. For example, women who cut into line receive
less hassle than men. Men kill and are killed four or five times more
frequently than women. Boys, but not girls, are encouraged to be physically
aggressive. About 70% of parents say it is good for a boy to have a few fights
as he grows up. How many parents think that about their daughters?
As culturally prescribed sex roles fade in our culture, however, the gender
differences in aggressiveness may decline. But will men become less
aggressive or women more aggressive or both? The crime rate for women is
increasing much more rapidly than for men. Also, experimental studies of
punishment show women administering just as much electric shock to victims
as men do (Byrne & Kelley, 1981). Women seem to have a different reaction
than men to being aggressive. Apparently, boys and men expect acting
aggressive to pay off, girls and women don't. Women experience more
anxiety and guilt after aggressing than men do; they also are more empathic
with the victim afterwards.
Some studies show that about 50% of college students (both males and
females) report having been physically aggressive to some extent (from
throwing something to beating up on someone). Yet, college males are far
more likely than females to get into a fight in the local bars. And, when asked
about going to war against Iraq over Kuwait, 48% of men favored war in late
1990 but only 22% of women did. We will discuss violence with intimates
(spouses and children) soon.
It is generally believed that anger is power. Thus, women are at a
disadvantage because they are uncomfortable showing their anger. Indeed,
their anger is more disapproved then men's anger. That makes displaying
your anger, if you are a woman, more dangerous. But, showing weakness is
dangerous too. Certainly, if a female manager or leader is seen crying and
emotionally disabled in a situation that might be handled aggressively by a
strong male, she will lose prestige in the eyes of many people. Therefore,
some people have begun to encourage women to show their anger and utilize
it skillfully as a tool for getting important changes made. Here are some
guidelines for using anger constructively: (1) Don't react impulsively, be sure
your anger is justified and have clearly in mind exactly what needs to be
changed. (2) Decide in advance how far you will go, e.g. can you and will you
fire someone over this issue if it isn't worked out? Are you willing to quit over
this issue? Will you demand a hearing or press charges? (3) When ready,
state specifically and firmly what you want changed. Don't accuse or blame
others. Show anger and strong determination but don't get overly emotional.
(4) Expect to get some flack and opposition. (5) Sit down with others involved
and work out detailed plans for making the changes needed. Note: this is
similar to "I" statements (method #4 in chapter 13) but in a work setting
there is more emphasis on demanding reasonable changes.
Valentis & Devane (1993) discuss anger that uniquely characterizes
women and suggest ways of utilizing the energy from anger in positive ways.
The following analysis of cultural factors is taken primarily from Scherer,
Abeles, and Fischer (1975). The rate of homicide in the US is four to eight
times greater than in most European countries or in Japan. Obviously, that
can't be due to inherited factors and it seems unlikely that there are that
many more frustrations in the U.S. There must be something about our
society that makes us more prone to violence. First of all, there is a high
value placed on success which may lead to more frustration. Secondly, if you
can't succeed by legitimate means, you might consider illegal, more violent
means. Thus, lower socioeconomic classes are more prone to crime. Thirdly,
there are subcultures within our country, such as gangs, crime families, and
macho groups, that encourage violence.
Fourthly, several other factors within certain subcultures create stress: (1)
having strong conflicts between values, such as believing in white or male
superiority and equal opportunities, (2) feeling unjustly treated and deprived,
(3) experiencing economic, racial, sexual, or other prejudices, and (4)
believing the "establishment" (e.g. police or courts) is handling some local
situation badly. In summary, if you are poor, discriminated against, stressed,
oppressed, within a subculture of violence, and have little hope of improving
your situation, your chances of being angry and aggressive go up.
Psychological excuses for aggression; anger may pay off
Anger is destructive and it drags us down. Yet, we may, at times, become
obsessed with misery-causing resentment in order to avoid some even more
horrible misery. What could that payoff be? Theodore Dalrymple (1995) says
that our resentment of others and of past events helps us deny our own
responsibility for our failings and unhappiness. If we think of ourselves as the
innocent victim of circumstances, we are not bad people or a failure, indeed,
we deserve sympathy and help. We may see our parents as the cause of our
suffering and failures (accurately in some cases, falsely in others). Some
people obsess over and over again that a critical parent destroyed their self-
esteem or an alcoholic parent made them totally ashamed or a busy parent
made them feel worthless... Poor parents are made responsible for our lives
and we are relieved of any responsibility. That's a big payoff.
If we portray ourselves as mistreated by a cruel world, we appear to be a
righteous person, totally blameless, and it seems unnecessary for us to
change or do anything about it. We become a helpless victim, which gives us
some status. As Dalrymple points out, however, if we, as a victim, actually
took action and overcame or corrected the unfair situation, it would suggest
that perhaps we never needed to be a victim, that we could have helped
ourselves much earlier than we did. So, we often resist trying to change our
miserable situation in any way. Who wants to know that they have messed up
their own lives? Criminals usually have tales of a wretched childhood and bad
influences which account for their stealing, attacking people, and killing
others. Our resentment of our past glosses over our possible failures in self-
One reason for our own aggression is that we excuse it or rationalize it.
We may even get an ego boost from it--being a tough, fearless, macho man.
How can guilt about our aggression be reduced? See chapter 3 for more
discussion of the excuses we use when we are inconsiderate of others. Briefly,
Bandura (1973) describes several ways that we, as aggressors, avoid blaming
Emphasize the goodness of our cause. Our violence is often
thought of as necessary to stop an evil force.
When you think of the long and gloomy history of man, you will find
more hideous crimes have been committed in the name of obedience
(to a national or religious cause) than in the name of rebellion.
-C. P. Snow
"I'm just following orders." This is said by soldiers. Hitler's SS
Troops said it. It was said by subjects in Milgram's study of
obedience (see chapter 8).
"I just went along with the crowd." Individual persons in a
rioting crowd or a lynch mob feel little responsibility.
Degrading the victims. Jews were seen as inferior and
despicable in Hitler's Germany. The victim is portrayed as evil,
stupid, animalistic, or greedy, and deserving to die.
Blaming the victim (see Ryan, 1976). This is a situation where
the victim--the raped, robbed, insulted person--is blamed for
the incident, e.g. "she was asking for it dressed like that."
Example: In My-Lai, Vietnam, American soldiers thought the
villagers had cooperated with the enemy; children in the village
sometimes betrayed or were violent towards our soldiers; "C"
company had just lost 20% of its men in a minefield outside the
village. All Vietnamese were feared, hated, called "gooks," and
were hard to tell from enemy soldiers. One day, Americans
herded 400 villagers--mostly women, children, and babies--into
a ditch and shot them. It seemed to some of the soldiers as
though the villagers deserved to be shot. Similar events have
happened many, many times throughout human history.
Becoming accustomed to violence. In families, a raised voice
becomes a verbal attack which escalates to a raised hand which
leads to a shove, then a slap, and finally increasingly severe
beatings. Likewise, soldiers are gradually trained to kill: first
they see war movies and are told why they must fight, then
there are many training exercises where killing is simulated,
and finally they hear horror stories about the enemy. The more
mutilated bodies one sees, the easier it is to kill. As one soldier
said, "If you see their villages bombed and shelled every night,
pretty soon the people just don't seem worth very much."
Denying the harm done by our aggression. "They are probably
covered by insurance." "I just slapped her around a little." In
war, we forget the life-long pain suffered by the loved-ones of
the deceased; we forget the loss of a creative mind or loving
heart of a 18-year-old.
Read the pacifists' reasons for opposing war and violence under all
conditions (Nagler, 1982). See the movie Gandhi.
Anger in Intimate Relationships
The traditional marriage vows are emotionally moving and express a noble
commitment: "I take thee, for better or for worse...until death do us part." However,
we often come to dislike many things about our partner, leading to serious conflicts.
Indeed, although all start with sincere intentions, almost 50% of all marriages end in
divorce, in spite of enormous pressures to stay married. Why the pressures? If
marriage is considered a sacred public pledge or even "a union made in heaven,"
then divorce might be regarded a sin (like in the Catholic Church) or, at least, a
violation of a solemn promise. In addition to external pressures from family and
divorce courts, there are also intense personal needs to "make it work" because it
seems as though "you have failed" if your marriage fails.
Many marriages fail but do not end in divorce--the so called "empty shell"
marriage. These marriages may not have intense conflicts; indeed, they may be void
of feelings. There must be disappointment in such marriages, however. Let's look at
some of the sources of conflict in the traditional marriage (see chapter 6 for a
discussion of the sadness of breaking up; see chapter 14 for generally unhappy and
dissatisfying marriages; this chapter deals specifically with anger, abuse, scorn, and
Most married people initially try to build a smooth, close, safe relationship,
preferably one without friction. In this process, sometimes the roles for husband and
wife become very rigidly defined; there is no freedom, no room for growth or
change. Sometimes people think they need to pretend to be or feel some way to
appeal to their spouse; there is little honesty and intimacy if you think your spouse
may not accept you as you really are, i.e. for better or for worse.
Fullerton (1977), in the mid-70's, explained how "the perfect wife" becomes sad
and angry. A woman with self-doubts may be unusually anxious to please her new
husband. She tries to do everything the way he would want it done. She believes: "if
I'm the good, perfect wife, I will be loved." Eventually being perfect with
housecleaning and diapers and children gets tiresome and boring. She becomes
resentful. Some evening when her husband arrives home from work late and finds
her still mopping the floor, he asks, "Are you still cleaning?" She bursts into tears.
She cries because the only ways she can vent her frustration are either to go into a
rage against her husband (which she--the perfect wife--can't do) or turn her anger
inward on herself. Her self-criticism increases, she clings more desperately to the
husband, and feels more and more like crying.
The 1970's "perfect wife" was also prone to be jealous. According to Fullerton, a
female was likely to get her sense of worth from a male--her father, her boyfriend,
her husband, and later her sons. She may have gone from being Daddy's little girl to
being someone's wife without ever becoming a person. She was dependent on her
looks and on being a "good girl" and "perfect wife" in order to be loved. She saw her
husband as having strength and purpose; he was her whole life. Even when he was
at work, she carried on an inner dialogue with him. She made her decisions in terms
of what he would want and expect. Being so needy and unsure of her worth,
naturally she would be jealous of anything that took his time--his work, his friends,
his interests, etc. She was too insecure and too "perfect" to confront him, but
eventually the jealousy may burst through, especially if she imagined another
woman was involved. Once a jealous rage has occurred, it tended to reoccur. If he
was innocent, it would be hard for him to persuade her that her suspicions were
groundless. If she found out there is another woman, she was crushed. She felt
betrayed, lost, scared, worthless, and angry. She might decide that all men are no
good or she might look for another one who desires her. Women are changing but
any woman over 40 can remember those times. (Divorce is discussed in chapter 10.)
Husbands can become angry, threatened, and jealous too. An insecure male may
become dependent on his wife's adoration. She makes him feel good about himself.
He may want her to "stay home" (feeling fearful that other men in the work place
might take an interest in her). He may be jealous of anyone or anything that gets
her attention. Tragically, that sometimes includes their own first born child. The man
may be ashamed to admit feeling resentful of his own child. Yet, he feels left out and
betrayed; the wife is bewildered and unable to relieve his pain because the problem
is inside him--his self-doubt (Fullerton, 1977). Men still want to be in control; they
haven't changed as much as women have since the 1970's. This causes more
problems--girls/women are becoming more independent, boys/men are remaining
dependent, tough, macho, and violent. Our culture is still inclined to say, "Boys will
be boys." Male possessiveness, dominance, and violence have continued into the 21st
century. Statistics will testify to the suffering caused by the remaining male
dominance and unfairness that takes place even in progressive countries. The
atrocious violence and degradation that women continue to experience in male-
dominated countries is much worse and intolerable (Chesler, 2005).
In some families the frustration experienced by marital conflict is denied but gets
expressed against another family member, often the oldest or the second child. This
displaced hostility is very harmful to the child since he or she has no way of dealing
with it (since the child has no control over the real source of the anger). The child
may be accused of bad traits a parent has (projection) or of bad traits one parent
resents in the other partner. For example, if the wife feels the husband is a liar and a
cheat, she may accuse the son of these traits and ask her husband to punish the son
(indirectly letting the husband know how much she resents those traits). The
husband's shame may get turned into self-righteous wrath towards the son. The
parental expectations of the son to be dishonest may also become self-fulfilling
prophecies, with the son saying to himself "if they never believe me anyhow, I might
as well lie."
No one expects his/her marriage to be like this. And, in fact, the problems of a
two-career marriage without children would be quite different. But, even though
financially better off, the dual-career family has its own unique problems.
Dealing with the intimate enemy
Like scapegoating, many marital or lovers' quarrels serve the purpose of
concealing the real conflict. Arguments over money may really be about who has the
most power or about not getting enough attention or recognition. In the last section
of this chapter we will learn about the possibility of honest, open "fair fighting" with
The Intimate Enemy (your spouse), according to Bach and Wyden (1968). This kind
of "fighting" can confront us with the truth, stripping away phoniness and deception,
and giving us a chance to deal with the real problems realistically. (It may also
encourage criticism and the expression of raw emotions that damage the
relationship, depending on the personalities involved. The pros and cons of "fair
fighting" are considered in method #5 of chapter 13.)
All close relationships experience some friction. No thinking person will always
agree with us. The thrill of being with your lover wears off. Certain wishes and
dreams about marriage will not come true. Partners want things from us we can't or
won't give. Criticism and resentment tend to be expressed in irritating ways. So
many human traits annoy us; we tell ourselves that people and things should be
different. It is frustrating when we can't understand why someone does what they
do. What was "cute" when dating may become very irritating, e.g. a partner's
loudness or bossiness or indecisiveness. Even good traits, like being very
understanding or always rational or even-temper, can be irritating to a partner who
is ashamed of his/her emotionality. A partner may accept one of your traits, say
shyness, until he/she meets a good-looking, outgoing person, then he/she may
suddenly resent your quietness and nervousness.
Maslow (1971) had a "Grumble Theory" that says "the grass looks greener on the
other side of the fence and dead on our side." He felt life was a series of ups and
downs; accomplishments and relationships only give us a temporary high, soon we
are taking them for granted and grumbling again. Marriage is an example: John and
Jane were in love, got married, and had two beautiful children. They were supposed
to be blissfully happy, but after several years they take each other for granted--their
grass looks brown and uninteresting. So, John is attracted to other women who tell
him how talented and interesting he is. Jane is also attracted to successful, attentive
males and to a challenging, exciting career. The risk is that John and/or Jane will
turn the unexciting "taken for granted" feelings into active dislike or disdain "I can't
stand Jane" or "I hate being at home." Maslow observed that high level self-
actualizers focused on getting on with living, according to their values and avoided
blaming and resenting others or discounting the past. Few of us are self-actualizers,
When hostility builds inside, eventually it gets released--sometimes on the wrong
person or issue. Often the tirade is a repetitive emotional harangue, obviously
venting the anger rather than communicating. It may include vicious, nasty, cutting,
insulting, offensive accusations. Both people are likely to become hostile and start
playing "hard ball." In addition to the release of their poison--which may be hard to
forgive--the fighters are usually trying, albeit ineffectively, to change each other.
Have you ever noticed how hard we work to change others and how little we work on
changing our expectations of others?
Trying to get our way
There are two major tactics for getting our way: (1) reasoned arguments and (2)
manipulation via bargaining, hinting, and use of emotions, deceit, or coercion.
According to Johnson and Goodchilds (1976), 45% of women use emotions (usually
sadness), as do 27% of men (usually anger). Four times as many women as men
use helplessness as an appeal. However, you lose self-respect and the respect of
others when you use weakness to manipulate others. Three times as many men as
women use knowledge and present facts as a basis for winning an argument.
Androgynous women are more like men. Unfortunately, the woman who takes a
direct, rational, factual approach to make her point is often considered "pushy" while
a male taking a similar approach is often seen as competently assertive. Fortunately,
this is changing as we get into the 2000s. See the no-lose method #10 in chapter
13 and see later in this chapter for more about arguments in marriage. I'm working
on the assumption that you will be less likely to fall into the psychological pitfalls of
using manipulation, if you know the pitfalls exist.
Anger is nothing more than an attempt to make someone feel guilty.
Finding better ways to resolve anger
Lerner (1985) points out that anger is often a signal that something is wrong in a
relationship. Often it is true, we may be angry because we are feeling put down,
neglected, and dealt with unfairly, infantilized, insulted, or cheated in some way by
our partner. But sometimes past experiences or outside irritants and frustrations in
life, having nothing to do with our partner, set off our angry response. Therefore, the
real problem may or may not be within the relationship. The first step is to find out
where and what is the problem. Then solve the problem. Lerner's main theme is that
the usual ways of handling irritating circumstances in a relationship--either being
"nice" or being hateful--do not ordinarily change the situation or solve the problem.
For example, the suppression of negative feelings (being "nice") usually means being
weak, passive, uncommunicative, and compliant, which builds up more and more
anger and eventually results in an ineffective hateful "explosion" or in "emotional
distancing." On the other hand, the 1960's notion of "letting it all hang out" (and
fully venting your anger), whenever you feel like it, is not only ineffective but has its
hazards too, such as increasing the animosity, lowering self-esteem, feeling guilty
and unable to relate. Thus, neither the nasty attacks nor the hateful bitching of
unfair fights, as we've seen, nor the uncommunicative empty shell marriages are
capable of solving the underlying marital problems. They only make things worse.
OK, what will help?
Lerner lists four useful approaches: (a) finding out what is really bugging you
(your needs, frustrations, regretted choices, blocked dreams, etc.), (b) learning to
use new, better communication skills (such as "I" statements in chapter 13), (c)
gaining insight into your "dance of anger" and adopting new "dance steps" out of the
old routine, and (d) recognizing both parties' efforts to maintain the status quo of
destructive fighting or passive withdrawal, rather than maturely resolving the
Resistance is a common barrier to changing the anger "dance." When desirable
changes are initiated by one person in a relationship, Murray Bowen, a family
therapist, says the partner frequently opposes the changes. For example, if the wife
decides to develop her own social life, rather than beg and badger her reluctant
husband to go out more, the husband's opposition to change often takes these
"What you are doing (or about to do) is wrong."
"Stop being this way and it will be okay."
"If you don't change back, some serious things will happen."
It takes courage to stand up to these challenges and threats, and proceed with
improving your life, rather than keep on dancing the anger waltz.
There are various dances of anger. There may be disagreements--how much to
socialize, spend, see relatives, watch TV, have sex, etc.--and anger flares, but
nothing changes. One may seek more attention and love over and over, while the
other is emotionally unresponsive; both may get irritated, but nothing changes. One
partner may be over-involved with the children; the other is under-involved, and
both complain, but nothing changes. One partner may try a variety of ways to
change the other person but little changes. Actually, the frustrated partner could
change his/her own behavior and meet his/her own needs in other ways, but too
often this independent action is not seriously considered and/or the partner strongly
resists such changes. To meet your own needs requires a clear sense of purpose,
confidence, independence, and persistence.
This willingness to be our own person and to move in our own direction, alone if
necessary, is important but very scary (even in this age of equal opportunity and
sexual equality). These fears stop us from clearly expressing our basic
disappointments in a relationship--so the troubles never get resolved. Also, we are
often afraid of unleashing our own anger, as well we should be, but the fear
frequently inhibits our clear thinking about alternative ways of resolving the
problems, including tactfully asserting our rights and preferences in that situation.
The anger and these fears (of separation and failure) also interfere with our
exploring the sources and background of our own anger. This lack of self-
understanding also reduces the keenness and flexibility of our problem solving
ability. Some quiet contemplation of our history, our rights, our situation, and our
true emotions might help us see solutions.
Triangles often play a role, without our awareness, in the creation of conflict and
anger with a person. That is, we suppress anger towards one person (a boss or a
spouse) and displace it to a scapegoat (a supervisee or a child). The scapegoat often
never suspects that the anger that certainly seems directed towards him has been
generated by someone else and is displaced to him; he/she just feels disliked and
persecuted. This arrangement permits us to use displacement to avoid facing and
working on our own interpersonal difficulties. Whenever anger becomes a chronic
condition--an unending dance--ask: Where might all this emotion come from? Is it a
"left over" from your original family? Is this displaced anger yielding a pay off to
someone, e.g. do you and your spouse get to work on a "problem child" together? Is
over-involvement between two people (say, father and daughter) a cause for mom
and dad to fight? What would happen if the third party avoided forming a triangle
and stayed out of any conflict between the other two people, e.g. if mom let father
and son resolve their own fights? Does constantly worrying and working on
relationship problems (yours or someone else's) divert your attention away from
running your own life wisely?
The major unhealthy roles we tend to act out under stress and when angry are
(a) the blamer, critic, or hot head, (b) the withdrawn, independent, or emotionally
unreachable person, (c) the needy, "let's talk," or overly demanding partner, (d) the
incompetent, "sick," or disorganized one, and (e) the know-it-all, "I have no
problems; I'll handle yours" rescuer. Do you recognize yourself and the people you
have conflicts with? Try to avoid these roles. Start to change in small, carefully
planned ways using good assertiveness (chapter 13). Also, avoid talking to anyone
(beyond a brief factual consultation--no gossiping) about a third person who is
upsetting you; if your underlying purpose is really to recruit support for your side, it
may set up a triangle which is unhealthy. Deal directly with the person who is
bothering you; keep others out of it (unless you seek therapy). Of course, older
children or relatives can be told that you are having marital problems, if that is
needed, but don't ask them to take sides.
Psychological abuse in intimate relationships
The recent large National Violence Against Women survey (Coker, A. L., 2002, in
American Journal of Preventive Medicine; See
http://www.healthscout.com/news/1/509827/main.html) found that 29% of 6,790
females and 23% of 7,122 males had been physically, sexually or psychologically
abused by an intimate partner. Psychological abuse was more common than sexual
or physical abuse. All three forms of abuse are associated with the later development
of chronic physical and mental health problems. Good reason to take abuse
seriously. But exactly what is psychological abuse? It is hard to describe because the
same comment could be devastating to one person but might just seem funny or
insignificant to another target. How the denounced person responds is a crucial
factor. Whether or not a remark causes abuse isnt determined by just the
criticalness of the words used by the would-be abuser, the degree of hurt or abuse is
determined by whether or not the person being addressed feels hurt, belittled, and
degraded by the comments.
How the target responds depends on the circumstances, how the critical comments
are said, the intended purpose and the personality of the abuser. and on the
resilience and psychological defenses of the target, etc., etc. To be psychologically
abusive the comments or acts have to be seen as hurtful and/or actually do harm. It
is important to have a good understanding of the intentions of the critic and the
reactions of the target to the psychological or emotional abuse.
Howard University psychologist, Linda Berg-Cross (2005), describes four types of
psychological abuse: (1) the most devastating comments are demeaning and
critical of a persons personality, basic characteristics, and core values (you are
really stupid or I dont trust you). These actions or intimidating remarks may be
subtle but they undermine ones self-confidence and make one feel psychologically
weak or abnormal. (2) It can also be hurtful when an intimate partner withholds
support and praise when you most need it, e.g. after making a speech, your partner
points out a long list of mistakes you made. (3) A controlling partner sometimes
restricts who you can talk to, where you can go, what you can do, often they claim
that these restrictions are strictly for your own good. (4) Other ways a partner may
instill insecurity and self-doubts are to restrict your influence in decision-making,
to limit your access to money, to assign you jobs to do, to select your friends and
social activities, and to do anything that makes you feel inferior. These four kinds of
actions do not belong in relationships among equals; they are verbal abuse or
There are appalling statistics about psychological abuse (see Berg-Cross, 2005 and
Follingstad, 1990): among physically abused women almost all of them are also
verbally/psychologically abused. 72% of battered women believe the psychological
harm, especially emotional ridicule, was worse than the physical harm. Three times
as many black women were physically abused as white women (Mouton, C., April,
2004, using data from the Womens Health Initiative in American Journal of Public
Health) but white women reported more verbal abuse. About 11% of the 92,000 50
to 79-year-old women reported some kind of abuse in the last year. While we do not
know much about the level of abuse in different regional and ethnic situations, there
is a sobering report by WHO in the July, 2003, issue of its Bulletin in which over half
of Zimbabwean women (especially younger, poorer, uneducated, rural women)
believe wife beating is justified. Doctors, therapists, and other helpers, as well as
whole societies, need to know that all three kinds of abuse (physical, sexual and
psychological) are so common and to appreciate how wrong they are. There is a lot
of educating to do (reminds one of the gradual learning by cultures, by parents and
by schools that physical slapping, shaking, and whipping are usually. inappropriate
ways to teach or discipline).
Since the mid-1990s, research has made it clear that women are also capable of all
three kinds of abuse. When I started writing this book in 1970, the concern was
about males hurting and dominating women. Our society up to 30-40 years ago
provided males with patriarchal norms and peers supporting strong male control of
women. But hidden behind closed doors and not discussed at that time was abuse of
males by females. Females can be critical and controlling too. Even among male
college students 20% felt isolated or emotionally controlled by a relationship and
15% experienced an effort by their partner to reduce their self-esteem. Of course, if
the definition of psychological abuse is expanded to include a little restriction of
social contacts, some jealousy, mild criticism that lowers self-confidence and just
moderate verbal abuse, then the percent of relationships that could be called
abusive becomes quite high. When a relationship becomes unhappy (depressed,
stressed, low self-esteem), it is reasonable to look for possible abuse, especially
Abuse comes in many forms. Here is a simple list of abusive behaviors:
Being yelled at, called names, nagged at, called racial slurs,
called stupid, told no one else would want you,
talked to as a child, constant put-downs, ridiculed appearance,
threatened to kill me, threatened to take the children,
belittled important things I accomplished, told me I was fat, ugly, dumb,
said I was an unfit mother, embarrassed me in public, told the children I was
disgusting, said I was a bad sex partner, always screams at the children, puts down
Berg-Cross provides some excellent questions that clarify more precisely what
emotional abuse may involve. Perhaps these questions can help you self-assess your
and your partners tendencies to inflict psychological hurts:
A good relationship grants behavioral freedomsDoes your partner reduce
your freedom? Examples: Does he/she criticize your religious beliefs or activities?
Does he/she prefer that you not express some of your opinions in public? Does
he/she influence you choice of friends? Does he/she express (subtly or bluntly) what
you should wear, where you work, who you see? Does he/she discourage you from
doing certain new things?
A good relationship allows lots of interpersonal freedomsDoes your
partner discourage you or play down your successes? Does he/she dismiss or ridicule
your strengths? Does he/she make you feel dumb or unattractive? Does he/she
cause you to feel less important than himself/herself? Does he/she disapprove your
life goals? Does he/she seem to like it when you are insecure or dont do well? Does
he/she tend to avoid sharing intimate thoughts or resolving problems? Does he/she
talk about having sex as though it centers around him/her satisfaction? Does he/she
arrange the house, the food, the thermostat, the bed to please him/her?
A good relationship allows existential freedoms so both guide their own
livesDoes your partner disapprove your taking on responsibilities, going into debt,
working late? Does he/she discourage your spending time with hobbies, your reading
material, and volunteer work? Does he/she resent you having your own free time?
Does he/she seem grumpy when you dont feel well or want help doing some chores?
A good relationship avoids manipulation, subtle pressuring or threats,
blatant bargaining, deceit, coercion, intimidation, putting down and other
controls. Do you and your partner grant each other about the same degree of
freedom? Does he/she agree? Does he/she realize the freedoms you would like to
increase? Do you know his/her wants? Does he/she protect his/her freedoms more
vigorously than you do? Why? Can both of you share those wants? Do you want to
negotiate these matters with him/her? Can you get your freedoms without unduly
encroaching on his/her freedoms? Would you like to work on these issues with a
The closest Berg-Cross comes to giving self-help advice (beyond the questions
above) is when she describes four methods for preventing psychological abuse: (1)
Accept the separateness of both parties in an intimate relationship, although there is
a tendency to become one. When we get too tight or have been together a long
time, we tend to forget our partners freedoms and when he/she decides to seek
more freedoms it may seem like a breach of contract. We take them for granted.
Be aware of this and avoid being too controlling. (2) Be aware of the defense
mechanism of projection, e.g. if you have some urges to build a relationship with
another attractive person, instead of becoming uncomfortably aware of your own
temptations, you might start worrying that your partner is looking. Other traits and
needs can be projected by you to your significant other, such as carelessness with
money, lack of organization, procrastination, and so on. (3) Learn as much as you
can about changing yourself. Keep a close watch on your most important
relationships, then start early and work hard to correct any problems, especially
psychological or emotional abuse. This kind of abuse is not always easy to recognize;
we can always deny our inner thoughts and motivations. In contrast, serious physical
abuse is undeniable by the perpetrators and often visible to everyone. (4) There is so
much anger and unhappiness in the world, which often comes from our early family
lives. By confronting the current psychological abuse in your life, you are taking a
small step towards improving your part of the world and the future.
Psychological abuse needs to be treated if reading and self-help doesnt reduce
the abuse. Why is treatment by a professional needed? Because, as mentioned,
psychological abuse has a way of evolving into physical abuse. Thus, it provides a
possible warning sign of coming physical aggression. Psychological abuse users, both
men and women, need to seek therapy also because it continues to be extremely
destructive to the emotional quality of the relationship, to the emotional health of
both people, and to the welfare of their children. It has been found that psychological
aggression in the first 18 months of marriage often foretells physical aggression
within the next year and is associated with abuse of children later.
A variety of therapies can be used with psychological abuse: Angry thoughts of the
psychological abuser are principle causes of abusive behaviors and their negative
emotions. Cognitive-Behavioral techniques challenge these problematic thoughts,
expectations and needs by using psycho-education methods, such as explaining that
abusive actions stem from the abusers needs for power and control and by teaching
several communication skillsempathy responding, I statements, assertiveness,
conflict resolution, anger management, and so on (see chapters 13 & 14 as well as
later in this chapter). Berg-Cross also advocates a Psychodynamic approach where
the connection is made conscious between underlying emotional needs of the abuser,
such as low self-esteem, fears and dependency, compulsiveness, narcissism, etc,
and their abusive actions. Other approaches can be helpful, especially assistance re-
building trust in the relationship, therapy groups (for physical abuse in particular),
and supplemental drug or alcohol treatment if either partner also has such a
Berg-Cross finds some similarity between unhappy, abusive, hopeless marriages in
which the abused partner refuses to leave, and a situation where a violent criminal,
such as a robber, a child molester, or an abusive mate, holds a hostage. The
captured or abused partner (or prisoner) often feels totally dependent on the strong
dominant, sometimes ruthless, abusive person. Their life depends on the violent
person. Feeling helpless (and afraid), the threatened, desperate prisoner may show
some friendliness or appreciation to the abusive criminal in hopes of receiving some
favors or leniency in the future from the captor or abusive partner. In his/her
desperation the hostage develops some hopes for some sign of care and sympathy
from the abusive controller. Thus, the abused and tortured person hangs on in
hopes, usually illusory, that they will be treated better. This is called the Stockholm
Syndrome because several years ago the hostages of bank robbers became
supportive of the thieves during their five day capture.
A thorough understanding of psychological or verbal abuse is very important because
the development of abuse is a long process and psychological, verbal, or emotional
abuse is usually the start of the escalating violence. Nipping the verbal insults in the
bud is very wise. Otherwise, more and more violent harm is done to the partner and
love is diminished in the process. An entire book by OLeary and Maiuro (2001) deals
with Psychological Abuse in domestic relations and Gafner and Mantooth (1999)
describe a Psychoeducational Approach to partner abuse. Beverly Engel (2002)
focuses on emotional abuse by one or both parties and has published several books
in this area that are recommended highly.
Physical abuse of spouses and children
I will permit no man to narrow and degrade my soul by making
me hate him.
-----Booker T. Washington
Many of our conflicts are hand-me-downs from our original family, our
grandparents, and even further back. A generation or two ago most parents
whipped their children. Just a few generations ago there was a "Rule of
Thumb:" you may beat your wife with a stick if it is smaller than your thumb.
If your grandfather beat your father, it is not surprising that you are beaten.
If your mother was always envious and angry with her brilliant, perfect older
sister, it is not surprising if mother is very critical of you, if you are her oldest
daughter. If your dad's youngest brother was thought to be emotionally
disturbed, he may watch carefully for problems in his youngest son...and find
them. Know your history to know yourself and to understand others' reactions
to you. Messina (1989) has a series of workbooks for adult children from
dysfunctional families. The workbooks help you become aware of your
abusive history and find ways to get rid of the anger.
These clinical observations are fairly well documented by recent research
(Ehrensaft, Cohen, Brown, Smailes, Chen, & Johnson, 2003). Children who
have seen their parent(s) physically assault the other, who have been
abusively punished, and who have had behavior problems (conduct disorder)
when growing up, these are the people most at risk of partner violence as
adults. These researchers believe effective prevention programs need to be
started before the high risk children reach adolescence. So, if you have a
history of any of those problems, watch for any tendencies to be physically
or, more likely, psychologically aggressive and learn how to handle your
What backgrounds and conditions lead to abuse?
Battered women tend to be less educated, young, and poor with low self-
esteem, from an abusive family, passive-dependent, and in need of approval
and affection. If women are violent against their husband, they tend to have a
history of violent acts against others. Abusive men often have a need to
control their partner and tend to be under-employed or blue-collar, a high
school drop out, low paid, from a violent or abusive family, between 18 and
30, cohabiting with a partner with a different religion, and occasionally use
drugs. Don't let these specific findings mislead you, however. Abusers come
from all economic and educational levels. Most hit their wives only
occasionally and feel some remorse; a few are insanely jealous and a scary
few simply appear to coolly relish being violent.
Dr. Nicki Crick and Dr. Nelson (2003) and their co-researchers at the
University of Minnesota have greatly extended the study of victimization by
peers from mostly physical aggression against boys to girls and relational
aggression in elementary school. This is very important research underscoring
the anger and nature of aggression by young girls. Relational aggression or
victimization involves hurtful social acts, such as peer rejection or isolation,
making fun of, badmouthing, spreading embarrassing rumors, getting peers
to dislike you, etc. Both boys and girls do these things but girls are more
victimized in these ways than boys. Some girls (up to 20%) are reported to
be very adapt with this aggression by the time they are 3 or 4 years of age.
Boys are more physically hurt and threatened. There are psychological
adjustment problems resulting from relational meannesssuch as emotional
distress, shame, loneliness, anger and difficulty controlling ones anger and
impulses. These emotional reactions and self-perceptions often continue to
have an impact on personal and social adjustment several years later.
For instance, a University of Florida study (Noland, 2004) found that siblings
who have had a violent relationship (shoving, punching, insulting and
manipulating) while growing up usually between ages 10 and 14 are more
likely to become violent in dating relationships in college. A little more than
50% of the males and females in their study had punched or hit a sibling with
an object that could hurt. About 75% of the siblings had shoved or pushed a
brother or sister. Apparently fighting with a sibling while growing up sets the
stage for getting physical or even battering their dates in college.
You commonly hear it said You inherited your quick temper from your
Dad or your Grandma Smith. Researchers at several Canadian universities
have studied the genetic vs. the environmental source of ones physical and
relational aggression. They concluded that genetic factors could explain only
about 20% of social or relational aggression, while 80% is probably due to
environmental influences, such as observing parents and sibling or peer
influence. On the other hand, our genes are thought to determine for more
than half of the individual differences in physical aggression. Some think the
genetic inheritance shows up first in young children who then later learn
social aggression if the social environment (family and peers) supports acting
in those ways. Thus, if one can discourage a childs physical aggression early,
that may reduce the later development of relational aggression (Contact
Andrea Browning firstname.lastname@example.org). This theory has not been proven.
Studies done mostly by Chicagos Parent-Child Centers have shown that
school based educational programs with intense parental involvement have
reduced child abuse and neglect at home (52% less mistreatment), lowered
the students later record of delinquency, and increased educational
achievements for several years. (Chicago Longitudinal Study at
(http://www.waisman.wisc.edu/cls/.) In other parts of the country, between
10% and 20% of students report feeling unsafe in their schools. The unsafe
feelings are due to strains between groups of students, bullying, individual
aggressiveness, and the administrations lack of control.
Craig Field (email@example.com) recently reported on research
done with US couples and found that black and Hispanic couples were two to
three times more likely than white couples to admit committing physical
violence, both male-to-female and female-to-male abuse. Two factors that
were associated with increased domestic violence are impulsiveness in one or
both partners and alcohol consumption. Another interesting study
_id=1) found that economic factors, such as income and education, are
important determinants of a women being abused (the lower her income and
education, the more likely she is to be a victim). If a woman is abused, she is
likely to become less productive at work. So domestic violence has an impact
on the victims job security and on the employers productivity or profit as
How do we start being physical?
The common belief that abusers (of children) were themselves abused as
children may only hold true in general for males, not females. In fact,
physical abuse may mean different things to women and men. In a dating or
marriage situation, the beginning steps toward severe abuse may involve
psychological/verbal/emotional aggression--yelling, swearing, threatening,
spitting, shaking a fist, insulting, stomping out, doing something "for spite"--
and slapping, shoving, or pinching (Murphy & O'Leary, 1989). There is some
evidence that early in a relationship, women do these things as often as men,
maybe more so, but men eventually cause more physical damage than
women. There is a great difference between an opened female hand slap to
the cheek and a hard male fist crashing into the face, knocking out teeth, and
breaking the jaw. The slap expresses hurt feelings; the blow reflects raw
destructive, intimidating anger. It would be wise to never start the cycle of
abuse; so, try to avoid psychological aggression, such as name calling,
insulting, and yelling (Evans, 1992). The evidence is clear that once mild
physical aggression of pushing and slapping has started, it frequently
escalates into fist fights, choking, slamming against the wall, and maybe the
use of knives and guns. Psychological or verbal aggression by either party
must be considered an early warning sign that physical abuse is possible in
the near future. Thus, take verbal assaults and rages very seriously. See the
Psychological Abuse section above.
Steps taken to build anger... or to stop it
It is helpful to think of 5 steps (choices!) taking us from the initial
frustration to intense anger in which we feel justified to express primitive
rage: (1) deciding to be bothered by some event, (2) deciding this is a big,
scary issue or personal insult, (3) deciding the other person is offensive and
evil, (4) deciding a grave injustice has been done and the offender must be
punished--you must have revenge, and (5) deciding to retaliate in an
intensely destructive, primitive way. By blocking these decisions at different
levels and thinking of the situation differently, we can learn to avoid raging
anger. Examples of helpful self-talk at each step: (1) "It's not such a big
deal," (2) "Calm down, I can handle this rationally," (3) "There is a reason
why he/she is being such a b____," (4) "Let's find out why he/she is being so
nasty," (5) "I'm not going to lower myself to his/her level... is there a
possible solution to this?" When you practice these self-control responses in
fantasy, you are using stress inoculation techniques (see method #9 in
When the right juices flow, we humans tend to pair-off, one man and
one woman with the intention to have children. That is how we survived and
evolved. That pairing and birthing process involves massive investments of
time, work, and deep emotions. To keep the relationship healthy each partner
faces a major problem: (1) the male must keep other attractive males away
and (2) the female must keep the male from straying. Evolutionary
psychologists (Buss, 2003) call this human mate guarding. Whenever there
are competitors for your partner, these threats may trigger powerful reactions
of vigilance and, if necessary, violence. Therefore, certain actions by ones
partner can be useful forewarnings to females and males of possible violent
reactions. Examples: if your partner is overly concerned about where you are,
what are you doing, who you are talking to, etc. and if he/she declares he/she
would die if you ever left him/her and if he/she threatens to punish you if
you are ever unfaithful, all spell trouble. Other behaviors are also danger
signs, such as coming by to see what you are doing or calling to see if you
are where you said you would be. These are all signs of over-vigilance which
have been shown to be associated with becoming upset and reacting violently
(Buss, 2003; Shackelford, Buss and Bennett, 2002).
Physical abuse follows a pattern
First, there is conflict and tension. Perhaps the husband resents the wife
spending money on clothes or he becomes jealous of her co-workers. The
wife may resent the husband drinking with the boys or his constant demands
for sex. Second, there is a verbal fight escalating into physical abuse. Violent
men use aggression and fear as a means of control (Jacobson, et al, 1994).
When the male becomes violent, there is little the woman can do to stop it.
Actually, women in violent relationships are as belligerent and contemptuous
as their husbands but their actual violence tends to be in response to the
man's aggression. Nevertheless, over half of abused women blame
themselves for "starting it." Third, a few hours later, the batterer feels guilty,
apologizes, and promises it will never happen again, and they "make up."
Sometimes, the couple--or one of them--will want to have sex as a sign that
the fight is over. The sex is good and they may believe (hope) that the abuse
will not happen again, but almost always within days the cycle starts over and
the tension begins to build.
Statistics about abuse of loved ones
The O. J. Simpson case stimulated interest in spouse abuse, including
death. About 1400 women, 30% of all murdered women (world-wide it is up
to 70%), are killed by husbands, ex-husbands, and boyfriends each year; 2
million are beaten; beatings are the most common cause of injury to 15 to
44-year-old women. The statistics are sobering and truly scary (Koss, et al,
1994). A 1983 NIMH publication says, "Surveys of American couples show
that 20 to 50 percent have suffered violence regularly in their marriages." In
1989, another survey found physical aggression in over 40% of couples
married only 2 1/2 years. 37% of 11,870 military men had used physical
force with their wives during the last year (Pan, Neidig, & O'Leary, 1994).
Walker (1979, 1993) says 50% of women are battered. Recent research
(O'Leary, 1995) shows that 11% to 12% of all women were physically abused
during the last year. Among couples seeking marital counseling, 21% were
"mildly" abused and 33% were severely abused in the past year. Yet, they
seldom volunteer this information; therapists must ask.
For teenagers there is a Website titled When Love Hurts: A Guide for Girls on Love,
Australian Website (http://danenet.wicip.org/dcccrsa/index2.html) covers many sexual
Research also shows that men and women disagree about the frequency
and degree of their violent acts. However, men and women beat each other
about the same amount but the injury rates are much higher for women. One
early study found that 4% of husbands and 5% of wives (over 2 million) are
severely beaten each year by their spouses. Another study said that 16% of
all American couples were violent sometime during the last year. It is
noteworthy that 45% of battered women are abused for the first time while
pregnant. The FBI reported that battering precedes 30% of all women's trips
to emergency rooms, 25% of all suicide attempts by women, and 25% of all
murders of American women.
The National Domestic Violence Hotline (http://www.ndvh.org/) is available
every hour every day to give help in English and Spanish and in other
languages when it is needed. They will listen to your situation and advise you
about safety planning and crisis intervention. Often they can refer you to
shelters and helpful agencies. Call 1-800-799-7233 or 1-800-799-SAFE or TTY
World-wide the abuse of women is even worse (French, 1992). Amnesty
International (http://www.amnestyusa.org/women/index.do) reported in
2004 the extent of violence against women in terms of a global village of
1000 people: women would total 510 but 10 girls were never born due to
gender-selective abortion and neglect of female infants. Of these 500
females, 167 will be abused and another 100 raped. Female infants are
known to be killed by their parents in India and other countries. Over 135
million girls in parts of the world are forced into genital mutilation. Over 50%
of HIV/AIDS victims are females; about 80% of war refugees are women or
children. When raped in the US or Britain only about 15% report the crime.
Even today, 79 countries do not have laws against domestic violence and only
51 countries consider marital rape a crime. Several countries excuse violence
against women if it is supposedly done to defend the family honor.
The World Health Organization released in November, 2005, a world-wide
survey of 24,000 women in 10 countries. The amount of physical and sexual
abuse by their partners within the last year varies widely, from 4% of women
in Japan and Serbia to 30% to 54% in Bangladesh, Ethiopia, Peru and
Tanzania. Studies had already been done in the US, Sweden, Canada, and
Britain where about 20% to 23% of women have been abused. There are two
more important findings:
Abused women are 1.5 to 3.0 times as likely as women never abused
to have a health problem. These long-term difficulties may be (beyond
injuries from abuse) pain, dizziness, gynecological conditions, abortions, and
mental problems, including suicide. So the connection between stress and
health is seen again.
Women living in a rich country who had been abused were less likely
to still be being abused. Apparently, when they can escape, a percentage do
How common is wife rape?
Several studies have found that about 10% to 15% of women who have been
married report being sexually assaulted by husbands or ex-husbands (Rape in
America, 1992, National Victim Center). These figures may be low because
women are less likely to consider sexual assaults by husbands as rape.
Laws against rape in marriage have only been passed in recent decades. That
is strange, because the use of force and threats to have sex with someone is
wrong, it doesnt matter if the woman is pulled into an alley and raped by a
total stranger or if an angry husband demands sex now or if a date insists on
scoring. It is all rape. Wife rape is reported by 50% of women in shelters.
Abuse within the family
About 10% of all violent crime is family violence (committed by someone
within the family). Much abuse is still hidden, not only is marital abuse kept a
secret but sibling abuse is also. Within the privacy of our homes and even
unknown to the parents, brothers and sisters physically, emotionally, and
sexually mistreat each other (Wiehe, 1990). Some good news is that family
violence has declined in the last 10-15 years along with an overall reduction
in violent crimes.
Recently several studies have looked at the long-range consequences of
abuse or adverse childhood experiences. This includes a wide variety of
hurtful, stressful events for childrenactually if a child has suffered one
abusive experience, that child has an 80% increased risk of being abused in
some other way as well. There are more of these bad experiences than most
of us realize, e.g. more than half of middle-class children enrolled in the
Kaiser Permanente plan has had one such experience, one in four children
have had two types of abusive experiences, one in 16 have experienced four
types of harm. Then when abused children are followed over 50 years or so, a
remarkable array of health, psychological, and behavioral consequences are
found (more in formerly abused children than other children). Examples: they
smoke more, have more depression, experienced more anger, are more
abused by partners, have attempted suicide more often, used more illegal
drugs, have heart disease, diabetes, obesity, alcoholism, and do more poorly
in their job (Sawires, 2003). There are several other long-term studies that
confirm these findings. Even though we are forewarned, our physical and
psychological professionals are not good at prevention.
Spouse abuse dynamics
Why does wife abuse occur? Many writers believe the cause is male
chauvinism --a male belief that men are superior and should be the boss,
while women should obey ("to honor and obey "), do the housework, and
never refuse sex. Those are ridiculous ideas. A male abuser is also described
as filled with hate and suspicion, and feels pressured to be a "man." That
sounds feasible but new findings (Marano, 1993; Dutton, 1995) suggest that
the chauvinistic facade merely conceals much stronger fearful feelings in men
of powerlessness, vulnerability, and dependency. Other research has found
abusive men to be dependent and low in self-esteem (Murphy, Meyer &
O'Leary, 1994). Many of these violent men apparently feel a desperate need
for "their woman," who, in fact, is often more capable, smarter, and does
take care of their wants. These relationships are, at times, loving. The
husband is sometimes quite attentive and affectionate. Often, both have
found acceptance in the relationship that they have never known before.
Then, periodically, a small act of independence by the wife or her brief
interaction with another man (perceived as intended to hurt her partner) sets
off a violent fight. The abusive man becomes contemptuous, putting the
woman down in an effort to exercise physical-emotional control and build up
his weak self-esteem. Of course, the insecure aspects of many abusers are
well concealed within the arrogance.
Likewise, battered women have been thought of as weak, passive, fearful,
cowering, self-depreciating partners. Of course, some are, but recent findings
(Cordova, Jacobson, Gottman, Rushe, & Cox, 1993) suggest that many
battered wives, during an argument, are outspoken, courageous, hot-
tempered, equally angry and even violent, but they are overwhelmed by the
husband's violence. They don't back down or de-escalate the argument; they
respond with verbally aggressive, offensive comments. Such women were
often "unmothered" as children. The male abuser often grew up in a violent
environment, where he was sometimes (30%) abused himself or (30%) saw
his mother abused. So, we often have a situation in which two insecure but
tough, angry, and impulsive people are emotionally compelled to go through
the battering ritual over and over (Dutton, 1995).
Researchers are just now studying the complex details of battering by
males. There are many theories about male violence: hormonal or chemical
imbalance, brain damage, misreading each other's behavior, lacking skills to
de-escalate or self-control, childhood trauma, genetic and/or physiological
abnormality, etc. Also, beneath the abuser's brutality, therapists look for
insecurity, self-doubts, fears of being "unmanly," fears of abandonment,
anger at others, resentment of his lot in life, and perhaps a mental illness
(Gelb, 1983). Several TV movies, such as The Burning Bed, have depicted
this situation. There seems to be three stages: tension & anger, words &
battering, and contrition & promises. Yet, we don't know a lot about the
causes of wife abuse; it is a safe bet that they are complex.
During the last 10 years, University of British Columbia psychology professor,
Donald Dutton has run the Assaultive Husbands Program in Vancouver and
written several in depth and scholarly books about understanding and treating
abusive men. The books include The Batterer: A Psychological Profile (1995),
The Abusive Personality: Violence and Control in Intimate Relationships
(2002), and Intimate Violence: Contemporary Treatment Innovations (2003).
These are sophisticated analyses. The most important finding is that the
abusive husband is often mentally tormented and self-loathing. Many
batterers have a fragile sense of self stemming usually from a shaming
father, an emotionally detached mother, and an early home environment
ruled by violence. The abusers childhood experiences produces a post-
traumatic stress disorder in a man who has identified with a critical,
demanding father and who now has a strong fear-laden attachment to a
woman whom he batters but needs badly. Several therapists have described
different dynamics within different kinds of batterers: (1) the psychopathic or
generally violent/antisocial type, (2) the emotional/borderline & impulsive
type, and (3) the aloof/over controlled type, (4) the family only aggressor,
(5) the cyclical hot and cold type, and others. There are a lot of ways to be a
batterer. If you are going to read only one text, read one of Duttons (2003)
latest books. But there are several new books about physically violent men
and women (see the Books & Websites section below.)
The mental picture of spouse abuse is often a big, tough, burly enraged male
beating up on a small, trembling, totally dominated female. Some writers in
the domestic violence field seem to imply that within all males there is a
latent abuser just waiting to hit his wife or girlfriend if she does anything
wrong. Even among men there are tendencies to think of men who are
supportive of the Womens Movement as being weak, henpecked, or
castrated. Men are expected to be quiet and handle aggressive women like a
man, meaning say nothing. Only since the early 1990s has research results
been showing rather clearly that men are psychologically degraded, shamed,
dominated, insulted, victimized and physically injured about as much as
women are. Male abuse is often hidden, just as female abuse is. Interesting
Department of Justice statistics currently show that 35% to 40% of all
domestic violence victims are males. Moreover, recent studies suggest that
younger, college-aged women are at least as violent as younger men and
perhaps up to twice as violent as their partners. It certainly appears that the
two genders are about equally abusive (considering all kinds of abuse),
although the common opinion, I believe, is that women suffer more injuries
than men. But this is open to question: one study of hospital Emergency
Rooms in 2004 found that more men than women had injuries of a serious
nature from domestic violence. Perhaps our views of gender roles in domestic
violence need to be revised.
Okay, then why does husband abuse occur? One of the best sources of
information about abuse of men is in a book by Philip Cook (1997) the
subtitle of the book is The Hidden Side of Domestic Violence. This is an
excellent description of the other side of family fights the role of female
anger, aggression, and violence. Cook provides case studies and some
insight; he give some self-help suggestions for victims but avoids gender bias
in which men or women are seen as villains. Who commits the violence is an
important issue, even if the answer is usually both of them, e.g. consider
how often accusations of violence are verbalized in divorce hearingsone
partner tries to get custody of the children by claiming the other parent
abuses them or the children or one parent tries to keep the children from
seeing the other parent by vilifying the other parent. We know so little about
husband abuse. Some women probably have the same fears, needs, and
weaknesses as battering men and are in a situation where they can physically
abuse their partner. In the 1990s it was known that women are victims of 11
times more reported abuse than men (Ingrassia & Beck, 1994). That may be
changing. But, as mentioned, men may be hesitant to label themselves as
"battered husbands." Spouse abuse occurs in all social classes and with
independent as well as dependent women and men. Society, relatives,
strangers, neighbors, and the police dont know how to deal with family fights
but society pays the bills in the emergency rooms, in marriage counseling,
and in divorce court.
Abuse should not happen but no treatment is a sure cure; in fact we don't
even have a good cure. About half of male batterers will not get treatment
and half of those that do, drop out. Little has been written about treatment
for female batterers. In most cases, it is wise to report male batterers and
their abuse to the police. Most police have had some training in handling
"domestic violence" cases; however, officers in New York, which has a
mandatory-arrest law, arrest only 7% of the cases and only report 30% of the
domestic violence calls (Ingrassia & Beck, 1994). Police are supposed to
provide the victim some protection (of course, this is hard to do and can't be
guaranteed). Recent research confirms the benefits of pressing charges in
abuse cases. If the abuse is not reported to the police, about 40% of the
victims were attacked again within six months. If the abuse is reported by
battered wives, only 15% were assaulted again during the next six months.
So, protect yourself.
Almost no one asks the question should women who batter their husbands be
reported to the police? Well, it seems fair that women batterers should be
reported to police like men are but women do not kill partners at the same
rate as men do. And there are other buts: what would this reporting do to the
already shaky relationship? And how would Police handle that task? Police
have enough trouble taking male batterers seriously; do we know how they
would deal with female batterers?
Why do women stay?
To the outsider the real question is: Why do they stay together? Why
doesn't she leave? Or, why doesnt he leave? Why should she have to leave
instead of him? If they stay together, there must be varied and complex
dynamics which tie an abusive couple together. We have much speculation;
we need more facts. Clearly, there are likely to be emotional bonds, fears,
shame, guilt, children to care for, money problems, and hope that things will
get better. Many abused women are isolated and feel unable to find love
again. Some women assume abuse is their lot as a woman; this isfor them-
-an expected part of life. A few women even believe a real, emotional,
exciting macho "man" just naturally does violent things and feels superior to
women. Some violent men are contrite later and even charmingly seductive.
Some women believe they are responsible for his mental turmoil and/or are
afraid he will kill himself or them. She may think she deserves the abuse.
Many believe he will beat them more or kill them, if they report the assaults
to the police. Of course, injury and death do occur. The abused woman often
becomes terrorized and exhausted, feeling totally helpless. Walker (1979,
1993) says the learned helplessness (within a cycle of violence and making
up) keeps women from breaking away from the abuser. Celani (1994)
suggests that both the abuser ("she can't leave me") and the abused ("I love
him") have personality disorders, often originating in an abusive childhood.
There are many sources of information about why women stay, but a couple
of the best and most comprehensive books are It Can Happen to Anyone by
Alyce LaViolette (2000) and Broder, M. S. (2002). Can your relationship be
saved? How to know whether to stay or go. Also, do a search for why women
stay on Google. Id like to add one more factor: breaking up, failing at
marriage, getting a divorce, and living alone are all viewed negatively, almost
as if people think there must be something wrong with you. It seems like
people expect divorced person to be miserable, poorly adjusted, and a failure
in many ways. Of course, if that is single-ness people would dread making
such a move. But my impression is that being single is a much happier state
than people expect it to be. Ive heard it expressed that single-ness involves
feeling I can stand on my own, Im free to do what I damn please today,
and taking care of myself is better than having to meet someone elses
needs. Those feelings sound great and one can still have wonderful, close,
Abused women leave an average of 10 times before they successfully break
away. It is hard for many women to permanently leave. Perhaps the main
reason women stay in an abusive relationship or come back to it is because
they have hopes it will get better. They also sometimes return to a bad
relationship because some fear for their lives. It is not uncommon for women
to be stalked, harassed or threatened (or have their children threatened) as
they are leaving or after they have left. There are, in fact, serious dangers to
be guarded against.
At best, breaking up is very stressful. I consider it very important that
everyone thinking about leaving a relationship get a therapist or at least
have a close, dependable friend to talk to. If you dont have a therapist or a
good friend, please seek help (bluntly ask for it) from someone who has been
through a divorce and has the time/interest to help you through the process,
starting ideally some months before the break up and continuing for months
after separating. I emphasize having someone to talk to because everyones
situation is different and the decisions you need to make are unique to you
(hardly something I could write to you in a book). For example, you may
need to accumulate some money before leaving, to arrange a place to stay or
for transportation, to know where you can hide if physical harm is threatened,
Can abusers change?
Gondolf (2000) did a long-term follow up of a treatment program for male
batterers to find out what techniques seemed more effective in reducing
assaults. About 53% of the subjects reported using interruption methods
(stopping arguments or fights) to prevent further abuse, 19% relied on
discussion methods (turning to a less intense and more constructive talking)
to aid anger control, and a small 5% relied on increasing their respect for
women to increase their self-control. That 5% seems like a very low number
considering the follow up lasted for 15 or more months; however, 20% of the
participants reported gaining more positive attitudes towards women and
33% of their wives reported their husbands had become more respectful and
had changed a great deal. With a lot more research, perhaps domestic
violence can be markedly reduced, but we have a long way to go with a tough
The long-term effects of abuse within a family
There is ample evidence that psychological abuse and physical abuse
by a partner are both associated with developing mental health and physical
health problems (Coker, 2002). Using the National Violence Against Women
Survey of 16,000 American adults, these University of Texas researchers
found that 29% of women and 23% of men had been abused by a partner
(more psychological abuse than physical or sexual). The abused partners
(both men and women) had developed more chronic physical or mental health
illness and had poorer general health, more depression, more anxiety, more
injuries, and more drug/alcohol addiction than partners who had not
experienced abuse. This study draws special attention to the heretofore
neglected effects of psychological abuse on men and underscores that a good
diagnostician will investigate these historical factors in both sexes.
Domestic violence affects perhaps 8% to 14% of our population.
However, less than 20% of physicians screen new patients for it, while 98%
ask patients about smoking, 90% about alcohol use, and even 47% inquire
about HIV and STD. This is partly because doctors know less about screening
for abuse. We dont expect primary care physicians to treat domestic violence
but they should ask about it and make appropriate and quick referrals.
Books and websites about domestic violence
No person should ever physically hit, slap, or shove another person,
certainly not a person you are supposed to love. Physical threats should not
be made either. Yet, the frequency of physical/emotional aggression (see
statistics given above) is horrible. Lenore Walker (1979, 1993) described the
victim as traumatized and cruelly dominated to the point she feels helpless
and, often, worthless. The abused may become so unable to confront the
abuser that she can not walk out. The most dangerous time is when she is
walking out. Walker's work is regarded as one of the best self-help books for
battered women (Santrock, Minnett & Campbell, 1994; Norcross, et al, 2000
and 2003). The two reference books just cited about self-help resources,
along with many other sources, suggest many pre-2000 helpful books:
(Ackerman & Pickering, 1995; Geller, 1992; Martin, 1989; Strube, 1988;
Follingstad, Neckerman, & Vormbrock, 1988; Deschner, 1984; Fleming, 19