Understanding How Angry Emotions Lead To Behavior

Few would argue against classifying anger and fear as negative emotions, or against classifying excitement as a positive one. But new research shows that, in some ways, anger has more in common with excitement than it has in common with fear. Researchers at Boston College wanted to explore how emotions alter the things we pay attention to. That emotion and attention are linked has already been established, but Brett Q. Ford, Maya Tamir, and four other authors wanted to look at a specific emotion—anger—to see what we can learn about the emotion based on the sorts of things it directs our attention to.

For the study, they had people spend 15 minutes writing about a time in their life associated with one of four emotions: fear, anger, excitement, and neutrality or lack of emotion. Then, they showed people two pictures: one of a sexy couple (classified as a rewarding picture) and one of a person menacingly waving a knife (classified as a threatening picture). They tracked how long people’s gaze stayed with each picture to determine which emotions were drawn more to threat and which were drawn more to reward.

Not surprisingly, fear gravitated toward the threatening picture, but both excitement and anger gravitated toward the rewarding picture. The study’s authors suggest that paying attention to reward may make people more likely to be pro-active in pursuing or approaching something, but that the type of emotion will impact what type of pursuit is played out. For example, an angry person may be more confrontational, whereas an excited person will be more outgoing and willing to collaborate. Understanding how emotion influences what we pay attention to can help us understand the actions that follow. This can be particularly helpful for anger management therapy by helping people understand how their feelings and behavior are linked. It can also be helpful for those who experience fear (such as survivors of abuse and other trauma).

© Copyright 2010 by By John Smith, therapist in Bellingham, Washington. All Rights Reserved. Permission to publish granted to GoodTherapy.org.

The preceding article was solely written by the author named above. Any views and opinions expressed are not necessarily shared by GoodTherapy.org. Questions or concerns about the preceding article can be directed to the author or posted as a comment below.

  • Leave a Comment


    August 20th, 2010 at 10:33 AM

    So in reality from all the things we see we are actually picking up only certain things more than the others…?! And the fact that this depends on our emotions and mood is surprising as well.

    But it may explain why we may behave differently to the same thing in two different moods.

  • Georgia


    August 20th, 2010 at 10:58 AM

    As long as you pay close attention to your emotions and what you are feeling then I think that it is ok to experience all of them- just learn how to deal with them in a way that can be productive instead of hurtful.

  • shaun


    August 20th, 2010 at 7:38 PM

    being angry often makes me prejudiced about things and people and i tend to behave in a more aggressive manner when i’m angry.i guess this happens with most people if not all and i hope there is a way to control this so that our emotions do not influence our perception of others or make us more aggressive than normal.

  • Kaci


    August 21st, 2010 at 12:51 PM

    How could I learn to better control my anger? Sometimes i feel so mad and I know that I am out of control but it’s like I can’t stop mysef or those emotions from spewing over

  • hallie


    August 23rd, 2010 at 4:55 AM

    For some people who experience anger the reward is just being able to release that stress and that steam that is lying beneath the surface. that blow up allows them to get something off their chest,say what they ahve to say and then be done. But what they do not realize is that while that release may make them feel good it is probably making the person that they are venting toward feel like crap. And when you release that that is simply not what you are thinking about. You are thinking about how much better you are going to feel at that point and not thinking about the ramifications that it could have on others.

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