Why we get mad — and why it's healthy | Ryan Martin

Why we get mad -- and why it's healthy | Ryan Martin



Alright, so I want you to imagine that you
get a text from a friend, and it reads … "You will NOT believe what just happened.
I'm SO MAD right now!" So you do the dutiful thing as a friend,
and you ask for details. And they tell you a story
about what happened to them at the gym or at work
or on their date last night. And you listen and you try
to understand why they're so mad. Maybe even secretly judge
whether or not they should be so mad. (Laughter) And maybe you even offer some suggestions. Now, in that moment, you are doing
essentially what I get to do every day, because I'm an anger researcher, and as an anger researcher, I spend
a good part of my professional life — who am I kidding, also my personal life — studying why people get mad. I study the types of thoughts
they have when they get mad, and I even study what they do
when they get mad, whether it's getting into fights
or breaking things, or even yelling at people
in all caps on the internet. (Laughter) And as you can imagine, when people hear I'm an anger researcher, they want to talk to me about their anger, they want to share with me
their anger stories. And it's not because
they need a therapist, though that does sometimes happen, it's really because anger is universal. It's something we all feel
and it's something they can relate to. We've been feeling it
since the first few months of life, when we didn't get what we wanted
in our cries of protests, things like, "What do you mean
you won't pick up the rattle, Dad, I want it!" (Laughter) We feel it throughout our teenage years,
as my mom can certainly attest to with me. Sorry, Mom. We feel it to the very end. In fact, anger has been with us
at some of the worst moments of our lives. It's a natural and expected
part of our grief. But it's also been with us
in some of the best moments of our lives, with those special occasions
like weddings and vacations often marred by these everyday
frustrations — bad weather, travel delays — that feel horrible in the moment, but then are ultimately forgotten
when things go OK. I have a lot of conversations
with people about their anger and it's through those conversations
that I've learned that many people, and I bet many people
in this room right now, you see anger as a problem. You see the way
it interferes in your life, the way it damages relationships,
maybe even the ways it's scary. And while I get all of that,
I see anger a little differently, and today, I want to tell you
something really important about your anger, and it's this: anger is a powerful and healthy
force in your life. It's good that you feel it. You need to feel it. But to understand all that,
we actually have to back up and talk about why we get mad
in the first place. A lot of this goes back to the work
of an anger researcher named Dr. Jerry Deffenbacher,
who wrote about this back in 1996 in a book chapter on how to deal
with problematic anger. Now, for most of us,
and I bet most of you, it feels as simple as this: I get mad when I'm provoked. You hear it in the language people use. They say things like, "It makes me so mad
when people drive this slow," or, "I got mad because she left
the milk out again." Or my favorite, "I don't have an anger problem —
people just need to stop messing with me." (Laughter) Now, in the spirit of better understanding
those types of provocations, I ask a lot of people, including
my friends and colleagues and even family, "What are the things
that really get to you? What makes you mad?" By the way, now is a good time
to point out one of the advantages of being an anger researcher is that I've spent more than a decade
generating a comprehensive list of all the things
that really irritate my colleagues. Just in case I need it. (Laughter) But their answers are fascinating, because they say things like, "when my sports team loses," "people who chew too loudly." That is surprisingly common, by the way. "People who walk too slowly,"
that one's mine. And of course, "roundabouts." Roundabouts — (Laughter) I can tell you honestly,
there is no rage like roundabout rage. (Laughter) Sometimes their answers
aren't minor at all. Sometimes they talk
about racism and sexism and bullying and environmental destruction —
big, global problems we all face. But sometimes, their answers are very specific,
maybe even oddly specific. "That wet line you get across your shirt when you accidentally lean
against the counter of a public bathroom." (Laughter) Super gross, right? (Laughter) Or "Flash drives: there's only
two ways to plug them in, so why does it always
take me three tries?" (Laughter) Now whether it's minor or major,
whether it's general or specific, we can look at these examples and we can tease out some common themes. We get angry in situations
that are unpleasant, that feel unfair,
where our goals are blocked, that could have been avoided,
and that leave us feeling powerless. This is a recipe for anger. But you can also tell that anger is probably not the only thing
we're feeling in these situations. Anger doesn't happen in a vacuum. We can feel angry at the same time
that we're scared or sad, or feeling a host of other emotions. But here's the thing: these provocations —
they aren't making us mad. At least not on their own, and we know that, because if they were, we'd all get angry
over the same things, and we don't. The reasons I get angry are different
than the reasons you get angry, so there's got to be
something else going on. What is that something else? Well, we know what we're doing and feeling
at the moment of that provocation matters. We call this the pre-anger state —
are you hungry, are you tired, are you anxious about something else,
are you running late for something? When you're feeling those things, those provocations feel that much worse. But what matters most
is not the provocation, it's not the pre-anger state, it's this: it's how we interpret that provocation, it's how we make sense of it in our lives. When something happens to us, we first decide, is this good or bad? Is it fair or unfair,
is it blameworthy, is it punishable? That's primary appraisal,
it's when you evaluate the event itself. We decide what it means
in the context of our lives and once we've done that,
we decide how bad it is. That's secondary appraisal. We say, "Is this the worst thing
that's ever happened, or can I cope with this? Now, to illustrate that, I want you
to imagine you are driving somewhere. And before I go any further,
I should tell you, if I were an evil genius and I wanted to create a situation
that was going to make you mad, that situation would look
a lot like driving. (Laughter) It's true. You are, by definition,
on your way somewhere, so everything that happens — traffic,
other drivers, road construction — it feels like it's blocking your goals. There are all these written
and unwritten rules of the road, and those rules are routinely violated
right in front of you, usually without consequence. And who's violating those rules? Anonymous others,
people you will never see again, making them a very easy target
for your wrath. (Laughter) So you're driving somewhere,
thus teed up to be angry, and the person in front of you
is driving well below the speed limit. And it's frustrating because you can't really see
why they're driving so slow. That's primary appraisal. You've looked at this and you've said
it's bad and it's blameworthy. But maybe you also decide
it's not that big a deal. You're not in a hurry, doesn't matter. That's secondary appraisal —
you don't get angry. But now imagine you're on your way
to a job interview. What that person is doing,
it hasn't changed, right? So primary appraisal doesn't change;
still bad, still blameworthy. But your ability
to cope with it sure does. Because all of a sudden, you're going to be late
to that job interview. All of a sudden, you are not going to get your dream job, the one that was going to give you
piles and piles of money. (Laughter) Somebody else is going to get
your dream job and you're going to be broke. You're going to be destitute. Might as well stop now, turn around,
move in with your parents. (Laughter) Why? "Because of this person in front of me. This is not a person, this is a monster." (Laughter) And this monster is here
just to ruin your life. (Laughter) Now that thought process, it's called catastrophizing,
the one where we make the worst of things. And it's one of the primary
types of thoughts that we know is associated with chronic anger. But there's a couple of others. Misattributing causation. Angry people tend to put blame
where it doesn't belong. Not just on people, but actually inanimate objects as well. And if you think that sound ridiculous, think about the last time
you lost your car keys and you said, "Where did those car keys go?" Because you know
they ran off on their own. (Laughter) They tend to overgeneralize,
they use words like "always," "never," "every,"
"this always happens to me," "I never get what I want" or "I hit every stoplight
on the way here today." Demandingness: they put their own needs
ahead of the needs of others: "I don't care why this person
is driving so slow, they need to speed up or move over
so I can get to this job interview." And finally, inflammatory labeling. They call people fools, idiots, monsters, or a whole bunch of things
I've been told I'm not allowed to say during this TED Talk. (Laughter) So for a long time, psychologists have referred to these
as cognitive distortions or even irrational beliefs. And yeah, sometimes they are irrational. Maybe even most of the time. But sometimes, these thoughts
are totally rational. There is unfairness in the world. There are cruel, selfish people, and it's not only OK to be angry
when we're treated poorly, it's right to be angry
when we're treated poorly. If there's one thing I want you
to remember from my talk today, it's this: your anger exists in you as an emotion because it offered your ancestors,
both human and nonhuman, with an evolutionary advantage. Just as your fear alerts you to danger, your anger alerts you to injustice. It's one of the ways your brain
communicates to you that you have had enough. What's more, it energizes you
to confront that injustice. Think for a second
about the last time you got mad. Your heart rate increased. Your breathing increased,
you started to sweat. That's your sympathetic nervous system, otherwise known
as your fight-or-flight system, kicking in to offer you
the energy you need to respond. And that's just the stuff you noticed. At the same time, your digestive system
slowed down so you could conserve energy. That's why your mouth went dry. And your blood vessels dilated
to get blood to your extremities. That's why your face went red. It's all part of this complex pattern
of physiological experiences that exist today because they helped your ancestors deal with cruel and unforgiving
forces of nature. And the problem is that the thing
your ancestors did to deal with their anger, to physically fight, they are no longer reasonable
or appropriate. You can't and you shouldn't swing a club
every time you're provoked. (Laughter) But here's the good news. You are capable of something your nonhuman ancestors
weren't capable of. And that is the capacity
to regulate your emotions. Even when you want to lash out, you can stop yourself
and you can channel that anger into something more productive. So often when we talk about anger, we talk about how to keep
from getting angry. We tell people to calm down or relax. We even tell people to let it go. And all of that assumes that anger is bad
and that it's wrong to feel it. But instead, I like to think
of anger as a motivator. The same way your thirst
motivates you to get a drink of water, the same way your hunger
motivates you to get a bite to eat, your anger can motivate you
to respond to injustice. Because we don't have to think too hard
to find things we should be mad about. When we go back to the beginning, yeah, some of those things, they're silly
and not worth getting angry over. But racism, sexism, bullying,
environmental destruction, those things are real,
those things are terrible, and the only way to fix them
is to get mad first and then channel that anger
into fighting back. And you don't have to fight back
with aggression or hostility or violence. There are infinite ways
that you can express your anger. You can protest,
you can write letters to the editor, you can donate to
and volunteer for causes, you can create art,
you can create literature, you can create poetry and music, you can create a community
that cares for one another and does not allow
those atrocities to happen. So the next time
you feel yourself getting angry, instead of trying to turn it off, I hope you'll listen
to what that anger is telling you. And then I hope you'll channel it
into something positive and productive. Thank you. (Applause)

33 comments

  1. I don't want you to riot. I
    don't want you to protest. I don't want you to write your congressmen. Because I wouldn't know what to tell you to write. I don't know what to do about the depression and the inflation and the defense budget and the Russians and crime in the street. All I know is first you got to get mad.

  2. All of our emotions have evolved for a purpose. Anger makes you more likely to use violence, which before the advent of society, usually increased your odds of survival.

  3. When you come across with a bad situation, whatever kind of bad situation, try to be counsciousness and wisdom with your attitudes and arguments, instead to be unpolite or arrogant. It's Ryan wanted to mean, strugle your angry with respect and be productive. P E A C E.

  4. I remember hearing Joe Rogan talk about his experience at TED Talks when he was invited to give a 10 or 15 min lecture. Mr. Rogan complained that it was like a cult, where he felt "kidnapped" for about a week because God Forbid the folks at Ted X wanted his undivided attention on such serious matters & probably didn't understand why he needed to leave for 3 hours a day for anyway. If that's the case, then, "When in Rome"… Surely they don't have policies that keep you "trapped" in a nice hotel for days on end without first supplying an itinerary of scheduled times, talks and activities. Just Saying.
    So I suppose. I guess he was probably surrounded by mostly intellectuals who don't really get "Starstruck". So yeah, I remember years ago Mr. Rogan dedicated almost a whole podcast to dogging Ted Talks when he first started his podcast and spoke about 9/11 being an inside job, noting Lucky Larry Silverstein, p-tech, Kroll and Associates, ICTS, the "Celebrating Israelis" arrested in New Jersey by East Rutherford police when they were spotted celebrating high-fiving and hugging one another taking photos of the Twin Towers burning in the background while raising their lighters in front of the burning Towers for the photos. The Israeli's were let go 60 days later by Michael Chertoff whose mother was the very first female Mossad agent. Which at least two of them admitted to being Israeli intelligence (MOSSAD) and were still let go. When they got home they went on an Israeli Talk Show in Tel Aviv and said in plain Hebrew, " The fact of the matter is we come from a land that suffers from Terror almost every day, "Our Purpose Was to Doucument the Event". then a couple years later from Mr Rogan it's, " well I'm no expert I'm just a big stupid oaf, what do I know about Aeronautics and engineering?"

  5. Something is wrong with me because instead of blood flow to my extremities to react with anger, it's a flood of anxiety and shaking.

  6. Anger is universal, that means it must have a purpose. What is that purpose? stress relief maybe

  7. People very often say, "angry", when what they really mean is, "annoyed" which is a whole different feeling and solution. Is the real problem anger or is it "response". The nuclear response to "everything" that happens to one in life is scary even if it's a woman. I know FIRST HAND, "OUCH"!

  8. You know! Anger is not always the expression of an emotion, it can be simply a reaction to an action.
    Because people are used to get angry over certain situations, not being angry suggests to them you're either too weak and fearful or simply to passive and easily manipulated… it's why you have to get angry or at least play the role, do what you have to do … it is interpreted by them as a form of protest and they stop messing with you, if not … You're just victimized over and over.
    Personally, I ended being called COLD, HEARTLESS, LIFELESS… and it became a habit for people to come kick me in the a*s, and saying … You know her, she never complains, whatever!!
    Anger can't be healthy! I believe that our ability to protest and our strength to change things come from our judgement and our inner feeling kicking inside and saying … you have to do it, you have to step against it because it's not right.
    While anger, is something so foolish that it doesn't make you think, but only hurt others and destroy relationships.
    I personally believe anger is the answer of the fool to the idiot.
    Anyway, thank you for the talk, you put your heart into it, so 👏

  9. 1:17 Anger is Universal????? Oh no it isn't!!!!
    3:40 Irritation is not anger.
    The Appraisal point is where an irrational person becomes angry. A rational person does not become angry.
    They are irrational.
    As are you.

  10. I get angry mainly by other people always being Aholes. I fight back and bc I fight back they become resentful hateful bitter spiteful. I am usually outnumbered. Also doesn't help that the majority of people around you are small simple minded not intelligent morons.

  11. It is not healthy to be MAD!!! Anybody that thinks anger is healthy is in my opinion not in truth and reality on this matter~~~ Anger is very detrimental to your body and soul and mind~~~anger is no different than being diseased or not at ease~~when the body is diseased or not at ease you need peace or ease to fix your self!!! There is no other way except to wo the bad vibes~!!!~

  12. Its ok to be angry, its just you need to be aware and take positive solutions to that particular issue

  13. why is it wrong to get angry because am getting late and person in front of me driving slow because of some pet issues… 😕

  14. Hmmm, few years ago on the news I heard that when an idiosyncratic is constantly angry they potentially become mentally disabled?!?!

    Don’t ask how I remember this 😅

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