Why Do We Get Mad? What's Really Behind Explosive Anger

It's probably not because someone cut you off on the highway.

There are angry people, then there’s getting angry. When something is “unpleasant, unfair, or blameworthy,” we get angry, but some people get angry for longer—and more intense periods of time. Why?

Ryan Martin, Ph.D., says that it starts with a trigger event, which happens right before someone blows up. 

“There is always some sort of event that happens right before someone gets angry that serves as the trigger (being cut off in traffic, being insulted by a coworker),” he tells Psychology Today. “Typically, people think that their anger is caused by these situations and they say things like, ‘I got mad because I got cut off by the driver in front of me’ or ‘that guy made me so mad.’ The implication here is that those events caused their anger directly, and there were no other mitigating factors. Of course, we know that can't be true. If it were, everyone would respond the same way to such situations. In other words, we would all react the same when we were cut off in traffic or when we were insulted.”

So if the anger was already there, what caused it?

Ryan says that individual factors play a huge part in how angry we are

“First, there are the characteristics of the individual--in this case, the person who was cut off or insulted,” he says. “Here, there are actually two things that matter: personality traits and the pre-anger state. Starting with the personality traits, we know that there are certain characteristics that make people more likely to experience anger (narcissism, competitiveness, low-frustration tolerance)….A highly competitive person would get angry when cut off in traffic since, to them, driving may be more of a competition with the others on the road. Likewise, a narcissistic person may think of himself or herself as the most important person on the road and be irritated by the other driver for that reason.”

The pre-anger state is how the person was feeling “physiologically and psychologically right before the situation.”

“When people are tired, anxious, or already angry, they are more likely to respond with anger,” Ryan says. “Some of this has to do with simple physiological arousal. A nervous person already has an elevated heart rate so doesn't have as far to go to become angry.”

But ultimately, whether or not we explode has to do with how we evaluate the situation. 

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