Business Psychology

Article No. 347
Supervision Findings, by James Larsen, Ph.D.

Temper, Temper

New research reveals a way to reduce anger and aggression.

There you are, minding your business, causing trouble for no one. It's a normal day. You're busy with people and doing your job. Suddenly, you're face-to-face with provocation: someone snaps at you and calls you a name, your boss makes a sarcastic remark, a coworker rolls her eyes in disapproval as you perform some routine task. Adrenaline starts to flow, your face flushes, your brows knit into a frown, and your good manners prevent the words you'd really like to say and the actions you'd really like to take.

The moment passes. The person who provoked your anger moves away and moves on to other tasks, and you're stuck with the moment of provocation. It plays over and over again in your mind.

This process of an upsetting event playing over and over in your mind has a name, and it has been the subject of careful research. The name is anger rumination, and Dominik Mischkowski from Ohio State University is the most recent researcher to make a contribution to our understanding of it. His recent work demonstrated a way to adjust anger rumination to make it more effective at relieving anger and reducing aggression.

Anger rumination is a natural reaction to provocation. People relive the moment. They re-experience the emotions they felt, the racing heartbeat, and the sweaty palms. They imagine actions they wish they'd taken and rehearse speeches they wish they'd delivered, and they experience regret that these actions weren't taken, and these speeches weren't made. They resolve to react differently next time. They may even plan an aggressive reaction to the offender that will be delivered late and hence miss the optimum moment, but they know they won't actually carry out these plans, and as a result, they get grumpy. That is, they feel frustrated, and they're likely to act out this frustration with aggressive words and actions toward people who have nothing to do with the original provocation (dogs, kids, and spouses beware). These new aggressive actions become fresh provocations for others to ruminate about. It's a mess, and Dominik Mischkowski from Ohio State University resolved to do something to help.

When people ruminate, they naturally adopt a first-person perspective, but this perspective prevents more objective reflection that might actually help reduce anger. First-person rumination often increases anger and aggression. Recently, researchers have begun to explore an alternative strategy, a self-distanced perspective.

With a self-distancing perspective, people imagine the provoking event from a "fly-on-the-wall" perspective. They see themselves from afar and notice elements of the broader situation. From a "fly-on-the-wall" perspective, they don't feel so victimized. Their honor isn't violated. The aggressive person who inflicts the provocation draws all their attention. Their own passive reaction suddenly looks right. A matching aggressive act seems wrong. Frustration, anger, and vengeful plans all seem to lose their potency. The passive reaction they did have now reflects maturity and self-control, and they feel better.

Using a self-distanced perspective to imagine a provoking event has revealed these benefits in past research, but lingering questions have been raised. Can people employ a "fly-on-the-wall" perspective in the real world in the heat of the moment? Can they overcome their natural tendency to react to provocation with a first-person perspective immediately after the provocation occurs, and if they can, will it work? Will it reduce anger and reduce retaliatory acts?

Mischkowski conducted two experiments with 180 college students. In the first, he gave them a difficult task to complete under time pressure, and while they were doing it, he got them really mad. An assistant repeatedly nagged at them, interrupted their work, and finally insulted them, and it worked. The students got mad, and while they were still angry, Mischkowski tested the two strategies. One group of students imagined the provoking scene from a first-person, rumination perspective. A second group employed a self-distancing, "fly-on-the-wall" perspective. Self-distancing revealed itself to be a far superior strategy at reducing anger and aggressive thoughts.

In a second experiment, Mischkowski once again got students mad, but this time, he gave them a way to retaliate. Now, he could measure differences in actual aggressive, retaliatory acts. Once again, those students imagining the scene from a self-distanced, "fly-on-the-wall" perspective displayed superior self-control. They weren't as angry, and they blasted their tormentors much less often with the noise "weapons" the experimenters gave them to use for this purpose.

Self-distancing does work, in the real world, as provocations occur. So, does anyone ever accuse you of being grumpy? Do you need to improve your self-control in reaction to provocation? Would your life be more peaceful if you always responded to provocation with self-distanced reflection of the upsetting incident? If "yes" is the answer to these questions, you'd be well served to practice this approach the next time provocation calls and tries to ruin your day. And if your spouse ever comes home grumpy, you might save a copy of this article and hand it to him/her.

Reference: Mischkowski, Dominik, Ethan Kross, and Brad Bushman (2012) Flies on the wall are less aggressive: Self-distancing "in the heat of the moment" reduces aggressive thoughts, angry feelings, and aggressive behavior. Journal of Experimental Social psychology, 48(2012), 1187-1191.

© Management Resources

See Also:

Workplace Feuds
Thwarted Desire

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