Are you mad? Maybe you should be.
We spend a lot of time trying to regulate our emotions. Most often, we seek to increase positive feelings, such as happiness and joy, and diminish negative ones, such as sadness or irritation.
But anger—what we feel when we think something is unjust and we believe we have the ability to change it—can be highly motivating in certain circumstances. It can make us take action to create change, and even help others in some cases. And so psychologists say it’s sometimes beneficial to boost it. We just have to do it very carefully.
In four yet-to-be-published studies, researchers at the University of Pennsylvania’s Wharton School looked at the role of anger in negotiations and competition. They found that people often seek to boost their anger before they hope to win.
In three of the studies, the researchers told half the participants that they would take part in a negotiation, and the other half that they would just chat with another person. In the fourth study, half the participants were told they were going to play a videogame against an opponent and the other half were told that they would play a financial computer game with a partner as a teammate. Then all participants were told to choose between two videos to watch: a clip of Robin Williams performing standup or a scene from the movie “Witness,” where Harrison Ford’s character gets harassed.
The participants who were told they were going to negotiate or play the videogame against an opponent picked the upsetting clip much more often than those who were told they were simply going to talk to another person or play as part of a team.
“People intuitively chose to become angry,” says Maurice Schweitzer, a professor at Wharton. “They believed they would become more effective competitors.”
They were right. Anger is what psychologists call an “approach” emotion—it makes us move toward or attack something. It can help us tackle problems, such as when we get mad about something political and rally to a cause. And getting mad before a negotiation, competition or sporting event can fire us up. That’s why coaches trash talk rivals.
But anger is dangerous, too. It can harm our relationships if we aren’t careful in how we express it. It’s distracting, consuming and can narrow our focus. And sometimes it’s not even warranted.
And there are some situations when anger just isn’t useful. While it can boost persistence—think of a triathlon where your biggest rival is also competing—it may drain your coordination and creativity because it can drain you emotionally. So you’ll want to try and avoid it if you’re golfing or writing a novel.
Maya Tamir, a psychology professor at the Hebrew University in Jerusalem, has been studying how people boost anger for more than a decade. Her older studies show that people who make themselves angry before competition perform better. When participants listened to heavy metal music, then played an aggressive videogame, they scored more hits or kills during the game.
Her recent research shows that our expectations—whether we believe our anger will help us or not—influence the outcome. In two studies, published as part of a larger series in the journal “Emotion” in July 2017, Dr. Tamir and a colleague had participants listen to either heavy metal or calming instrumental music. Some people were told that anger would help them perform better on a task they were about to begin, while others were told that anger would harm their performance. The participants in the first study then were asked to negotiate with another person for money, and those in the second study played an aggressive computer game.
The results for both studies were similar: The angry participants who listened to the heavy-metal music performed better: They made more money in the negotiation or killed more enemies in the computer game—but only when they expected their anger to boost or help them. “Our expectations make us behave in ways that ultimately influence the outcome,” says Dr. Tamir. If we believe our anger will help us win an argument, we are likely to be more confident and assertive. “It’s like a self-fulfilling prophecy.”
How to make anger work to your advantage:
Stay in control. Remember, we’re talking about measured, well-articulated anger. Yelling, name-calling, swearing and accusing are not likely to be received well. Express your displeasure in a calm and controlled manner.
Pick your timing. Gearing up for a negotiation or competition? It’s best to get mad right before or during it, says Maurice Schweitzer, a professor at the University of Pennsylvania’s Wharton School, who has studied how anger can benefit a negotiation. Becoming angry too far in advance will distract and consume you, Dr. Schweitzer says. Distract yourself in the meantime.
Know your audience. Anger won’t work with everyone. Research shows that expressing anger in a negotiation works better if you are a superior or equal to the other person, not when you are the one with lower status. Also, some people will be intimidated by it and shut down. Others may fight back. You can pay attention to past experience, says Maya Tamir, a professor of psychology at the Hebrew University in Jerusalem. “If you’ve learned that when you are angry with a certain person you are more likely to get what you want, then use that knowledge.”
Focus on your objective. The point isn’t simply to express your anger—to yell at your neighbor because his dog barks incessantly. That isn’t beneficial. You want to decide what will make the situation better and use your anger to help you reach that goal.
Believe it will work. Research shows that expectations matter. If you expect your anger to benefit you, you will be more likely to behave confidently and assertively and to make stronger arguments for your case, says Dr. Tamir. If you don’t believe it will work, you should avoid it.
Focus on what is unfair. And blame someone. These are the two key ingredients of anger, Dr. Schweitzer says. Want a raise? Get mad that you are paid less than the coworker sitting next to you who does the same job. And blame your boss. You don’t have to vent your blame—you can remain silent on that part. But use it as fuel to ask for the raise.
Ruminate. It’s a pretty reliable way to boost your anger. And listen to aggressive music. Researchers use heavy metal when they want to make people angry.
Avoid anger if you want to be creative. “Anger narrows our focus,” Dr. Schweitzer says. “It doesn’t allow us to use our minds in a free-flowing way and to think expansively.” If you’re trying to accomplish a creative task or think big, try to minimize your anger by distracting yourself. Read a funny book, watch a comedy, go exercise.
Take a step-by-step approach. You might not reach your goal right away—and sustaining anger over the long haul, or getting even madder because the situation is not resolved, will affect other areas of your life. Want to confront a coworker who is dropping the ball on a project? Email him to set up a time to talk, then write down your concern and stick the paper in a drawer. Get back to work. Go to the gym. Then read your note before your meeting to harness your feelings to achieve your goal.
Write to Elizabeth Bernstein at firstname.lastname@example.org or follow her on Facebook, Twitter or Instagram at EBernsteinWSJ.
Corrections & Amplifications
Maya Tamir was incorrectly identified as Dr. Mayer in a second reference in an earlier version of this article. (Nov. 6, 2017)