“Fear is the path to the dark side… fear leads to anger… anger leads to hate… hate leads to suffering,” says Yoda in The Phantom Menace. Turns out, the little green Jedi master spoke some pretty wise truth.
Anger is known as a secondary emotion because it is usually not the first reaction, but a defense mechanism to protect ourselves from or cover up other vulnerable feelings. If we feel afraid, attacked, disrespected, humiliated, frustrated, guilty, rejected, pressured, or powerless, and these feelings become intense enough, they can evolve into anger.
According to the General Strain Theory (GST) developed by criminologist Robert Agnew, one’s experiences of strain or stress often causes negative emotions such as sadness, depression, anxiety, resentment, and anger. Agnew identified three major causes of strain: 1) failure to achieve a goal, 2) the loss (or threat) of having something of value taken away (i.e.: the death of a parent or potential breakup), and 3) having dysfunctional or unstable personal relationships.
One of the responses to the negative emotions caused by strain is criminal activity. Strain will most likely lead to crime if the stressful situation is viewed as unfair, the individual is disposed to commit crime or the costs of crime are perceived to be low, or if the crime is supposed to correct the strain such as getting back what was lost, retaliating against the perceived cause of the stress, or attempting to escape the negative emotions caused by the strain.
GST argues that crime is also most likely to occur when negative emotions take the form of anger. Of course, this does not mean that everyone who gets stressed and becomes angry will break the law. Someone has much lower chances of resorting to crime if they have effective coping mechanisms, good problem solving skills, a high level of self-efficacy, a strong social support network, and a positive self-concept.
Research does provide convincing evidence that anger, usually coupled with aggression, has a causal relationship to crime, especially with violent acts such as assault, domestic and child abuse, rape, torture, and homicide. For example, there are much more murders committed spontaneously in the heat of the moment fueled by anger and adrenaline than premeditated murders.
Agnew’s theory also analyzed the perception and responses to strain between genders in an attempt to explain the high rate of male delinquency compared to female delinquency. He hypothesized that while females experience the same amount or more strain than males, the genders instinctively respond to strain with different negative emotions and their coping actions are guided by separate values.
When faced with one of the major causes of strain, women are more likely to become sad and depressed while men tend to react with anger. If women become angry, that anger is often tied to guilt, fear, shame, and worry about how that anger may affect others. Women tend to blame themselves and can become self-destructive. Men, on the other hand, respond to anger with moral outrage, are quick to blame others, and less concerned about hurting anyone else. Agnew also found that women value creating and maintaining close personal relationships, providing them with a stronger support system and discouraging criminal activity that would threaten these bonds. Men are more likely to value material success and could view property and violent crime as a means to achieve their goals.
Both men and women can be quick to distance themselves from hurt and fear. In fact, many people become so adept at covering up their true feelings they don’t even realize they are doing it. For instance, imagine your partner does something that makes you feel undervalued. Instead of becoming more vulnerable by sharing your hurt feelings, you attack them for something. Most of the time, this is subconscious but you are trying to hurt them back so they feel the way you do. For a moment, you might be feel better because any feelings of hurt, resentment, or other negativity has been transferred to your partner. However, arguments rarely end here. Your partner may counter retaliate or someone might storm out of the room to avoid the issue. None of these defensive responses enable your partner to understand what triggered your anger in the first place and how to prevent that in the future.
Anger is part of the fight-or-flight reaction that helped with survival in the past and still has some positive benefits today. Anger can be an appropriate reaction to injustice and serve as a powerful motivator to incite necessary changes in your life and the world. Anger can signal that it is important for others to watch and listen and lead to compliance.
When anger is mild, occasional, dissolves fairly quickly and is expressed directly to the problem person, in a non-accusatory manner and without aggression, then anger is playing the functional role of signaling annoyance and it can lead to problem resolution. However, if anger is moderate to intense, experienced regularly, lasts to the point where you are holding a grudge and are planning revenge, and is expressed in aggressive verbal and physical actions, then anger management help from a professional should be sought. This inappropriate anger expression will probably have a negative effect on your relationships, health, and possibly your criminal record.