Motivation and emotion/Book/2019/Anger evolution

From Wikiversity
Jump to navigation Jump to search
Anger evolution:
How and why did anger evolve and what are the implications?

Overview[edit | edit source]

Case study

James is an active, employed 21-year-old man who is well liked by friends and family. As a younger boy, he participated in lots of team sport, socially contributed during education settings and was well liked by his peers. Off the field, James is mild tempered and well mannered, however when playing sports James frequently experiences high levels of anger. During sporting events, his team mates are often repelled by his behaviours, and James has been suspended and reported for his on-field behaviour. James doesn't understand why he gets so angry, but recognises he may need to self-regulate or risk more suspensions and the loss of friends ...

Focus questions:

  1. What is anger?
  2. What is the research and theory of anger?
  3. How and why did anger evolve?
  4. What are the implications of anger?

Anger[edit | edit source]

Figure 1. Anger is the most passionate emotion.

Anger has been identified as a ubiquitous emotion (Averill, 1982). It is part of the basic biology of the human species; it spontaneously appears in infancy, is effectively universally distributed across cultures and individuals and has a species-typical neural basis (Sell, Tooby, & Cosmides, 2009). When individuals are asked to describe their most recent emotional experience, anger is the emotion that most often comes to mind; leaving us to conclude that anger is the most passionate emotion (Scherer & Tannenbaum, 1986). It motivates self-defence, regulates social interactions to defend the self and also increases the person's sense of control (Reeve, 2018). As well as anger being known as the most passionate emotion it is also recognised as the most dangerous; the functional purpose of anger is to remove obstacles in the path of the self. When this anger incites aggression it can produce unnecessary destruction and injury to ourselves and others (Reeve, 2018).

Why do we get angry?[edit | edit source]

Anger is a natural component of the human experience. The human nervous system is hard-wired for the emotion anger. Temperament, neurological, hormonal and other physiological processes can contribute to the experience and expression of anger (Deffenbacher, 2011). Anger is often associated with frustration; the core antecedent to anger is the presence of an obstacle to one's goal pursuit, thus anger's key function is to prepare the person to overcome obstacles (Reeve, 2018). It arises when situations don't go the way we want them to, or when interference is made with our pursuit of a goal that we are invested in, whether it is big or small. Human emotional make-up generates vigorous motivation to defend ourselves against such provocations, which in turn reliably elicit an anger response (Bettencourt Talley, Benjamin, & Valentine, 2006) and thus the emotion of anger motivates us to right the wrong. Anger can be triggered when someone tries to inflict harm upon us, physically or psychologically. In scenarios such as these, anger prepares the person to remove the harmful obstacle, also triggering desires to harm the individual causing us distress.

Anger can be significantly influenced by momentary and enduring characteristics of the individual during the time that a distressing obstacle is presented. A person's immediate physiological state may have a large impact on the probability, intensity and duration of anger. The more positive one is feeling physically and mentally, the threshold for anger may be higher, causing little to no anger to be expressed. Similarly, the more negative one is feeling the probability and intensity of anger may increase (Deffenbacher, 2011). Research has found that many different physical (tired, hungry, hungover) and mental (stressed, sad, anxious) states can increase the possibility of anger occurring (Berkowitz, 1978).

In social species, actions undertaken by one individual commonly impact others; exposure to most emotion categories can result in mirroring, or embodiment of that emotion in perceivers (Sell et al., 2009). Simply observing anger has the potential to evoke an anger state, or a 'complementary' fear state, reflecting the dual response of fight-or-flight (Harrison, Kreibig, Critchely, 2013).

Relevant theories and research[edit | edit source]

[Provide more detail]

Evolutionary perspective[edit | edit source]

Figure 2. Symbolic representation of evolutionary perspective. The more efficient a characteristic is, the more likely it is kept.

The evolutionary perspective states that many behavioural tendencies in humans including emotions, evolved because they serve adaptive purposes. The evolutionary perspective is derived from the work of Charles Darwin (1859). Whilst he did not invent the concept of evolution he was the first to propose an apparatus that could account for it- natural selection. Darwin proposed that natural forces select traits in organisms that are adaptive and are likely to be passed on to their offspring. Adaptive traits are characteristics that help organisms survive in their environment. For many years now, psychologists have attempted to produce a list of basic emotions, a cluster of emotions that share similar physiological, subjective and expressive components that are common to the human species (Burton, Westen, & Kowalski, 2015). Although theorists have generated lists that vary slightly, most classifications include five to nine emotions, all theorists list anger as one of these basic emotions (Reeve, 2018). Cross-cultural studies identified six facial expressions recognised across multiple cultures, amongst these six were anger (Burton, Westen, & Kowalski, 1992). These findings suggest that some emotions are biologically linked to distinct autonomic states and also certain facial movements (Burton, Westen, Kowalski, 2015). Darwin's theory of evolution explains why basic emotional expressions are recognised cross-culturally and wired into organisms. Darwin highlighted emotions' communicative functions; humans and animals, express their preparation for fighting, fleeing, or attending to another's needs through a variety of postural, facial and nonverbal communications (e.g. a baby's cry signalling parents, bared teeth displaying anger). The ritualisation of instinctive behaviours into fixed patterns of facial expressions, postures, and gestures was believed to serve as communications to other members of their group, signalling one's own behavioural intention or reactions to various environmental stimuli (Williams, 2017).

Anger and behaviours that accompany this emotion may serve many different functions. The physiological, psychological and behaviour traits of any specific emotion can be seen as possible design features that increase the ability to cope with the various threats and/or opportunities that are presented in any given situation (Nesse, 1990). Evolutionary theorists also view emotion as a powerful source of motivation, viewed as an 'internal' communication that something must be done (Burton, Westen, & Kowalski, 2015). Anger's key function is to prepare the person to overcome or remove an obstacle that is interfering with one's goal. Anger gives the individual an increase in strength and energy (the 'fight' aspect of the fight-or-flight response), motivating self-defence, and regulating social interactions to defend the self and what belongs to the self (Reeve, 2018). Anger's inclusion in the repertoire of basic emotions due to its universally recognisable pattern of facial expression (Williams, 2017) and evidence of hard-wired neural circuits that function to recognise these basic emotions in others (Burton, Westen, & Kowalski, 2015), give credit to the evolutionary perspective of how anger motivates behaviour and promotes survival and reproduction.

The recalibration theory of anger[edit | edit source]

Anger is undoubtedly part of the basic biology of the human species. It is effectively universal in its distribution across cultures and possesses a species-typical neural basis (Sell, Tooby, & Cosmides, 2009). Anger is a complex neural system that orchestrates behaviour, physiology, facial and vocal expressions, motivational priorities and energy regulation in response to interacting with social environments (Sell, et al., 2017). The recalibration theory of anger is a computational-evolutionary model that maintains that the function of anger is to recalibrate individuals who place insufficient weight on the welfare of the angry individual when making decisions (Sell, 2011). This newly developed theory aims to characterise the evolved function of anger - if anger did evolve through natural selection, then what was anger engineered to accomplish? This theory is based off basic principles of evolutionary biology, including the theory of bargaining and game theory (Sell, Tooby & Cosmides, 2009). It proposes that anger is produced by a neurocognitive program engineered by natural selection to use bargaining tactics to resolve conflicts of interest in favour of the angry individual (Sell, Tooby, Cosmides, 2009). If successful, the functional product of anger is the recalibration upwards of the other individual's tendency to place weight on the angry individual's welfare. Humans have two interpersonal negotiating tactics; conditionally inflicting costs, or conditionally withholding benefits. With these, not only humans but animals also, can attempt to incentivise another party to shift their actions or behaviour, in a manner more favourable to the bargainer (Sell, et al., 2017). The recalibration theory of anger maintains that anger evolved primarily to bargain for better treatment from those who reveal in their behaviour that their welfare tradeoff ratios toward the offended individual are lower than they 'should' be (Sell, et al., 2017). Thus, anger is produced when it believes that the other party is placing insufficient weight on the the welfare of the bargainer.

Cognitive neuroscience perspective[edit | edit source]

Cognitive neuroscience investigates the emergence of cognitive function from the physical and chemical activity of neurons in the brain. It explores the neural basis of cognition, drawing upon how neurons process and represent information (McClelland & Ralph, 2015). It is evident that there is specialisation of function within the brain, although different areas of the brain seem to work collectively and interactively, to support emergent cognitive functions.  

As it stands, there is no current cognitive neuroscience theory of anger, however there is extensive research on anger consistent with contemporary cognitive neuroscience. In clinical literature, cognitive processes are proposed as underlying problematic behaviours of anger (Deffenbacher, 2011), and social-psychological and developmental schemes for understanding anger and reactive aggression have adopted a cognitive perspective (Wilkowski & Robinson, 2008). It must be made clear that there are many different proposed literatures on this emerging topic, some highlighting different aspects of anger; however, many frameworks share distinct similarities in their respective models. The most prominent similarity is reactive aggression.

Figure 3. The human brain.

Anger is most known for being a response to a perceived threat to oneself or one’s belongings. Reactive aggression has been extensively sourced to share a strong linkage to anger, cited as being the ultimate behavioural expression of anger (Blair, 2011; Wilkowski & Robinson, 2008). Reactive aggression is a regulated response to threatening stimulus and is a characteristic in all mammalian species (Blanchard R, Blanchard, D, Takahashi, 1977; Panksepp, 1998). The argument can be made that anger and reactive aggression are different constructs, however no apparent psychometric research supports any significant distinctions between the two constructs (Wilkowski & Robinson, 2008).

A second similarity among different literatures is the neural systems implicated in reactive aggression and anger. Anger is a natural response to threatening stimuli. Numerous subcortical and cortical areas of the brain are specialised for functioning in response to threatening stimulus (Erickson & Schulkin, 2003). These neural systems (amygdala, hypothalamus and periaqueductal gray; the basic threat system) mediate reactive aggression and are seen in other mammalian species and are strongly implicated in anger responses in humans. Also, regions of the frontal cortex have been critically implicated in gradated responses of the basic threat system; if these regions are impaired there will be increased likelihood in anger and reactive aggression responses (Blair, 2011).

Thirdly, anger is commonly associated to be in conjunction with frustration, a trigger long been recognised to incite anger (Berkowitz, 1978). Frustration is also a key antecedent of anger; it occurs when an individual continues to carry out an action with the expectation of a particular outcome or reward, yet is unable to gain that reward (Blair, 2011).

Each of these frameworks provide a basis for the foundations for a cognitive neuroscience of anger. Many literatures have suggested that a dual process model be developed for understanding anger; to analyse anger as an inwardly directed construct concerned with preparing oneself to overcome obstacles or aversive situations; as an externally directed communicative expression to mediate interpersonal conflicts.

Case study

Amygdala damage has been associated with impairments in perceiving facial expressions and a range of emotions. Graham, Devinsky and LaBar (2006) aimed to establish definitive results of perception of anger and emotional blends. A participant, S.P., suffers from epilepsy, which has resulted in bilateral amygdala damage. Three morph progressions were employed: neutral-to-anger, neutral-to-fear and fear-to-anger. In the first version S.P. showed impairments to neutral-to-anger and fear-to-anger morphs, but not on the neutral-to-fear morph. In the second version S.P. showed impairments on all three morphs. The results imply that when heuristics use is discord on tasks utilising subtle emotion transitions, impairments of anger and anger-fear morphs, as well as fear, are evident in bilateral amygdala damage (Graham, Devinksy, & LaBar, 2006).

Quiz[edit | edit source]

Nuvola apps korganizer.svg
Quiz Time!

1 What are adaptive traits?

Powerful sources of motivation
Emotional expressions that are distributed universally
Cognitive constructs that help decision making
Natural Selection
Characteristics that help organisms survive in their environment

2 The recalibration theory of anger defines the functional product of anger as the:

Design feature that increases he ability to cope with threats
Neural typical basis across all mammalian species
Recalibration upwards of an individual's tendency to place weight on the angry individual's welfare
Recalibration downwards of an individual's tendency to place weight on the angry individual's welfare
Basic biology of the human species

3 According to literature of the cognitive neuroscience of anger, reactive aggression is commonly referred to as?

A dual process model of anger
Ultimate behavioural expression of anger
A trait only found in the human species

How and why did anger evolve?[edit | edit source]

Figure 4. Anger incites bodily change.

Anger is a fundamental human emotion. To understand anger, an understanding of emotion is needed.  Emotions are subjective, biological, goal directed and a social phenomenon. Extending from the work of Darwin (1859), an evolutionary perspective of emotion is the notion that they are an evolved phenomenon with important survival functions, having been selected for helping humans face and overcome obstacles. Similarly, James (1884) described emotions as being environmental adaptations, almost automatic responses to an organism’s environment that help it survive. James (1884) also insisted that it was impossible to experience emotions and not experience any bodily changes. While that may not be entirely accurate, it does hold some validity. Research into spinal injuries have found that feedback from the body, specifically the organs innervated by the sympathetic nervous system, largely contributes to the experience of emotion (Hohmann, 1966; Chwalisz, Diener & Gallagher, 1988; Cornelius, 2000). Arnold (1960), a cognitive theorist, proposed that all emotion, including anger, is dependent on appraisal, a process that determines whether the events in our environment are positive or negative (Cornelius, 2000). The function of appraisal informs the organism of specific features of the environment, readying the organism to prepare to act (e.g. when faced with a threatening stimulus, the body will increase blood pressure, elevate heart rate, dilate pupils etc.) There is an extensive amount of literature pertaining to the nature of emotion, each providing different frameworks for understanding the basic emotions. These emotions are universally distributed across individuals and cultures, with each emotion rising and serving a function depending on events of one’s environments or appraisal.

Anger evolved as a mechanism to ready the individual to face or overcome an interference with one’s goal. Anger produces its functional effects by increasing the person’s sense of control (Reeve, 2018). Research shows that when individual’s[grammar?] carry out acts in anger, they show a significant success rate (Tafrate, Kassinove, & Dundin, 2002).

What are the implications of anger?[edit | edit source]

Anger is considered a naturally occurring phenomenon and not unlike other emotions, is a sign of mental health and human affects[grammar?] (Shahsavarani & Noohi, 2014). Contradictory to most beliefs, anger is not just a negative emotion, such as hostility or envy. Researchers have struggled to find a specific area that anger resides within the general categorisation of positive and negative emotions (Watson, et al., 2016). However, anger is an effective means of coping with stressful or harmful events. Individuals who can adequately regulate their anger to organise bodily activations to produce constructive responses inside a provocative encounter function better socially than those who fail to show the same level of self-regulatory skill (Denson, Grisham, & Moulds, 2005; Reeve, 2018; Eisenberg et al., 1997). Anger arises due to a negative activation that leads an individual to resolve conflicts through active behaviours (Williams, 2017). Although there is some evidence that suggest that no additional appraisals are required for anger to occur (Berkowitz & Harmon-Jones, 2004), many theories do incorporate various additional elements. Anger can be more aptly described as an approach-oriented emotion.

Anger is not only known as the most passionate emotion; it is also the most dangerous emotion. As stated previously, anger’s function is to destroy barriers and obstacles in the path of an individual’s goal. Research has shown that close to one half of anger episodes often result in explicit vocalisations (yelling, swearing) and ten percent of anger episodes lead to aggression (Tafrate Kassinove & Dundin, 2002). When anger incites aggression, it produces causeless destruction and injury, sometimes promoting an effort to inflict pain and harm on others (Reeve, 2018). This is an act of approaching a particular desired condition, the creation of discomfort for someone else, or rectifying an injustice (Carver & Harmon-Jones, 2009). For these reasons, the crucial downside of anger when not effectively regulated, is that it repels others (Reeve, 2018).

Figure 5. Long term anger can result in frequent headaches

Anger can be an effective coping mechanism and a healthy expression of how one is feeling (when regulated effectively). It is one of many ways that the body responds to stress; when an individual becomes angry the body reacts by increasing heart rate and blood pressure and releasing elevated amounts of certain hormones (Carter, 2004). Although the human body is effective at bringing the body back to homeostasis, there are physical implications due to the body being in a constant state of high arousal (Department of Health & Human Services, State Government of Victoria, Australia 2018). Medical researchers have linked the stress response of anger to:

  • Headaches
  • High blood pressure
  • Increased chance of heart attacks and strokes
  • Shortened life expectancy

Unexpressed - and expressed – anger can also impact an individual's mental health. Studies have linked anger to:

  • Loneliness
  • Chronic anxiety
  • Depression
  • Eating disorders
  • Sleep disorders
  • Obsessive-compulsive behaviour and phobias (Department of Health & Human Services, State Government of Victoria, Australia 2018).

When anger is unexpressed, it can have a harmful effect on an individual and their personal lives, undermining an individual’s capacity for emotional fulfilment and personal professional achievement (Carter, 2004).

Conclusion[edit | edit source]

Anger has been well established as being universally distributed across cultures, sharing a species typical-neural basis and recognised as a fundamental component of the human experience (Averill, 1982; Sell, Tooby, & Cosmides, 2009). It has been defined as a negatively-valenced affect that arises from the interference of movement toward a desired goal (Carver & Harmon-Jones, 2009). Anger is also a response to a perceived threat to oneself and/or one’s belongings. Extensive literature recognises the utilitarian part anger plays in the lives of mammalian species; a crucial evolutionary adaptation to help promote an organism’s existence in their environment. Despite varying depictions of anger, all seem to link anger to be an approach motivational orientation.

Alongside the surge of interest in emotional experience there has also been a considerable range of viewpoints. Although being extensively researched, theorists of respected areas still struggle to categorise anger as both an emotion and source of motivation. Recent years have seen an increase in literature proposing differing models and theory of anger, but still none have seen to be universally recognised. Further developments of non-invasive research methods may uncover more about the experience of anger and be a benefit not only to the theory of anger but also to theories of emotion.

Contradictory to what many believe and hear, anger is not just a negative emotion, utilised to inflict harm on others. Anger is an approach-oriented emotion. When effectively regulated it is a successful means of coping with stressful events; motivating self-defence, regulating social interactions and increases an individual’s sense of control (Reeve, 2018). Anger can provide the energy and mental focus to accomplish one’s goal. Anger is part of the human experience and a healthy expression of affectivity.

See also[edit | edit source]

  1. Amygdala in sport (Book chapter, 2016)
  2. Anger (Book chapter, 2011)
  3. Anger and decision-making (Book chapter, 2015)
  4. Anger and violent behaviour (Book chapter, 2015)
  5. Cognitive theories of emotion (Book chapter 2010)
  6. Evolutionary theory of emotion (Book chapter, 2018)

References[edit | edit source]

Armony, J., & Vuilleumier, P. (2013). The Cambridge handbook of human affective neuroscience. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Averill, J. R. (1982). Anger and aggression: An essay on emotion. New York: Springer-Verlag

Barrett, L. (2013). Psychological Construction: The Darwinian Approach to the Science of Emotion. Emotion Review, 5(4), 379-389.

Berkowitz, L., & Harmon-Jones, E. (2004). Toward an understanding of the detriments of anger. Emotion, 4, 107-130.

Berkowitz, L. (1978). Whatever Happened to the Frustration-Aggression Hypothesis?. American Behavioral Scientist, 21(5), 691-708.

Blair, R. (2011). Considering anger from a cognitive neuroscience perspective. Wiley Interdisciplinary Reviews: Cognitive Science, 3(1), 65-74.

Blanchard, R. J., Blanchard, D. C., Takahashi, T., & Kelley, M. J. (1977). Attack and defensive behaviour in the albino rat. Animal Behaviour, 25, 622–634.

Burton, L., Westen, D., & Kowalski, R. (2015). Psychology (4th ed., pp. 365-409). Milton: John Wiley and Sons, Australia.

Carver, C., & Harmon-Jones, E. (2009). Anger is an approach-related affect: Evidence and implications. Psychological Bulletin, 135(2), 183-204.

Carter, L. (2004). The Anger Trap: Free Yourself from the Frustrations that Sabotage Your Life. John Wiley & Sons.

CE/CMEs, E., Andrew Arst, G., Online Pharmacy india, I., Kaye Cormack, G., & Arlene Allen, U. (2019). How Anger Affects the Brain and Body [Infographic] - NICABM. Retrieved from

Chwalisz, K., Diener, E., & Gallagher, D. (1988). Autonomic arousal feedback and emotional experience: Evidence from the spinal cord injured. Journal Of Personality And Social Psychology, 54(5), 820-828.

Cornelius, R. (2000). Theoretical Approaches to Emotion. Manuscript, Newcastle, Northen Ireland.

Darwin, C. (1859). The origin of species by means of natural selection, or, the preservation of favoured races in the struggle for life. London: John Murray.

Deffenbacher, J. (2011). Cognitive-Behavioral Conceptualization and Treatment of Anger. Cognitive And Behavioral Practice, 18(2), 212-221.

Denson, T. F., Grisham, J. R., Moulds, M. L. (2011). Cognitive reappraisal increases heart rate variability in response to anger provocation. Motivation and Emotion, 35, 14-22.

Eisenberg, N., Fabes, R., Shepard, S. A., Murphy, B. C., Guthrie, I. K., Jones, S., et al. (1997). Contemporaneous and longitudinal prediction of children's social functioning from regulation and emotionality. Child Development, 68, 642-664.

Erickson, K., & Schulkin, J. (2003). Facial expressions of emotion: A cognitive neuroscience perspective. Brain And Cognition, 52(1), 52-60.

Garfinkel, S., Zorab, E., Navaratnam, N., Engels, M., Mallorquí-Bagué, N., & Minati, L. et al. (2015). Anger in brain and body: the neural and physiological perturbation of decision-making by emotion. Social Cognitive And Affective Neuroscience, 11(1), 150-158.

Graham, R., Devinsky, O., & LaBar, K. (2007). Quantifying deficits in the perception of fear and anger in morphed facial expressions after bilateral amygdala damage. Neuropsychologia, 45(1), 42-54.

Harrison, N. A., Kreibig, S. D., & Critchley, H. D. (2013). A two-way road: Efferent and afferent pathways of autonomic activity in emotion. In J. Armony & P. Vuilleumier (Eds.), The Cambridge handbook of human affective neuroscience (pp. 82-106). New York, NY, US: Cambridge University Press.


Home | Department of Health and Human Services Victoria. (2019). Retrieved 20 October 2019, from

James, W. (1884). What is Emotion? Mind, 19, 188-205.

McClelland, J., & Ralph, M. (2001). Cognitive Neuroscience. In J. Wright, International Encyclopaedia of the Social & Behavioural Sciences (2nd ed.). Orlando: University of Central Florida, Orlando, FL, USA.

Nesse, R. (1990). Evolutionary explanations of emotions. Human Nature, 1(3), 261-289.

Panksepp, J. (1998). Affective neuroscience: The foundations of human and animal emotions. New York: Oxford University Press.

Reeve, J. (2018). Understanding Motivation and Emotion (7th ed., p. 342). Hoboken, NJ: John Wiley & Sons.

Scherer, K. R., & Tannenbaum, P. H. (1986). Emotional experience in everyday life. Motivation and Emotion, 10, 295-314.

Sell, A., Sznycer, D., Al-Shawaf, L., Lim, J., Krauss, A., & Feldman, A. et al. (2017). The grammar of anger: Mapping the computational architecture of a recalibrational emotion. Cognition, 168, 110-128.

Sell, A. (2011). The recalibrational theory and violent anger. Aggression And Violent Behavior, 16(5), 381-389.

Sell, A., Tooby, J., & Cosmides, L. (2009). Formidability and the logic of human anger. Proceedings Of The National Academy Of Sciences, 106(35), 15073-15078.

Shahsavarani, A., & Noohi, S. (2014). Explaining the Bases and Fundamentals of Anger: A Literature Review. International Journal Of Medical Reviews, 1(4), 143-149.

Tafrate, R. C., Kassinove, H., & Dundin, L. (2002). Anger episodes in high- and low-trait-anger community adults. Journal of Clinical Psychology, 58, 1573-1590.

Vassar, G. (2019). How Does Anger Happen in the Brain? – Lakeside. Retrieved from

Watson, E., Loveless, J., Stephenson, A., Bickel, K., Lehockey, K., & Everhart, D. (2016). The Relationship between Anger, Frontal Asymmetry and the BIS/BAS Subscales. Journal Of Nature And Science, 2(12), 1-7.

Williams, R. (2017). Anger as a Basic Emotion and Its Role in Personality Building and Pathological Growth: The Neuroscientific, Developmental and Clinical Perspectives. Frontiers In Psychology, 8.

Wilkowski, B. M., & Robinson, M. D. (2008). The Cognitive Basis of Trait Anger and Reactive Aggression: An Integrative Analysis. Personality and Social Psychology Review, 12(1), 3–21.

External links[edit | edit source]

Getting help: