Researchers call the phenomenon in which anger, rather than making things better, becomes a cycle of recrimination, rumination, and ever-expanding fury the revenge impulse.
Though anger and the desire for revenge can feel intertwined, they are two distinct emotions. Simply becoming angry doesn’t prompt a revenge impulse. Thomas Tripp, a professor at Washington State University who has studied how revenge can affect the workplace, told me that revenge is much more common if there is “a sense that the fairness of institutions, what we call procedural justice, has broken down.” When people believe that social institutions are functioning, they’re much less likely to feel vengeful urges. One study, for instance, found that when laid-off workers believed firings were handled fairly—that a process was adhered to, that seniority was respected, that worker evaluations were properly considered—they were less likely to protest or complain, even if they disagreed with the outcome. Alternately, if workers believed that managers were playing favorites or manipulating the rule book, sabotage was more likely. “Think about presidential elections,” Tripp said. “Every four years, roughly half the nation is deeply disappointed. So why don’t they get out their pitchforks? Because as long as they believe it was a fair fight, they tolerate losing. But when both the process and the outcome seem unfair, that’s when we see riots.”
It makes a certain evolutionary sense that the desire for revenge would be coded into us as an emotion of last resort. Good anger, as James Averill demonstrated, encourages us to air our grievances and find solutions. A leader like Cesar Chavez can reframe anger as moral indignation, which can extend the power of personal grievances into an instrument for the pursuit of a more just world. But when we come to believe that justice is impossible, we get the desire for revenge. We no longer expect our anger to be heard; we don’t express ourselves with the hope of finding accommodation. Rather, some people become willing to do anything to advance their interests, regardless of who is standing in the way. “When we want revenge, we keep going until we feel like we’ve taught the other person a lesson,” Tripp said. “The goal is to hurt the other person.”
It also makes sense that this emotion ought to be rare, because the desire for revenge can be exceedingly destructive. In many cases, the targets feel violated themselves. They are now injured, and may start seeking revenge of their own. People begin taking justice into their own hands, because they think institutions cannot provide it.
To Larry Cagle, it often felt like the school system, the state government, and even his union were conspiring to stoke his anger, without any promise of relief. After the strikes had kept schools closed for half a month, the teachers’ union called a press conference. Its leadership had decided to throw in the towel. “The legislature has fallen short on funding the promise for the future of education in our state,” said the head of the Oklahoma Education Association, Alicia Priest. Teachers should return to their classrooms. Anyone who missed another day of work might be fired.
This felt like a “gut punch,” Cagle told me. “It was treasonous for them to end it like they did, without asking all of us if we wanted to stop.” Though they returned to their classrooms, Cagle and other educators quickly began posting criticisms of the union’s leaders—and the teachers who supported them—on Facebook and Twitter. Soon afterward, Cagle found a flyer in his classroom. A few years earlier, he’d been arrested for drunk driving; someone had gone to city hall and photocopied his arrest record, and was handing it out to teachers and parents. His mug shot was posted on Facebook. Cagle suspected pro-union teachers.
“It was awful,” Cagle said. “I had to tell my students about the arrest, about what had happened. It was the most shameful day I’ve ever had in a classroom, and the worst part was knowing it was other teachers who wanted to destroy me.”
The teacher strikes of 2018 won concessions in some states. In Oklahoma, the results were mixed. The walkouts inspired a number of educators to run for political office and drew attention to classroom problems that had languished for years. But the protests have yet to produce higher salaries than what was promised before the walkout, or additional school resources. And they damaged relationships with lawmakers that teachers will need in the future. A Republican state representative named Kevin McDugle—whom Cagle publicly described as “douchebag No. 1”—had been fighting for teacher raises for years. “I voted for every tax proposal for a teacher raise that came before us,” McDugle told me. “You know what that cost me politically? And this is what I get in return? I’m of half a mind to say screw these people. They’re gonna get what they deserve.”It seems like our current madness should be reaching its apex, but the sources of our anger run deeper than the present political moment.
Since the protests have ended, Cagle has had a lot of time to think about what happened. Some might feel regret, believe that things got out of hand. Not him. He wishes everyone had fought longer and harder. This summer, he told me he’d been collecting gossip about adversaries’ sexual indiscretions to use as leverage in the next fight. (He later denied doing so.) Whatever faith he had left in the system has evaporated. He doesn’t describe what he feels as a desire for revenge; he says he is focused on trying to make things better, to improve the school system. But in our conversations, he often seemed past the point of compromise. “Next school year, we’ll force everyone to realize this fight isn’t over,” he told me over the summer. “I hate to say it, but sometimes you have to burn something down to save it.”
T hough it is ugly to admit, you may have felt similarly to Larry Cagle at some point in your life. You may have lost faith in Congress, your house of worship, your employer. Perhaps you feel so angry at times that screaming isn’t sufficient; you want to make someone else scream. Like Cagle, you may be nearing a point where you are past constructive solutions. You, too, may want to burn it all down.
This is a scary place to be—for us as individuals, and for the nation as a whole. The ways in which anger is constantly stoked from every side is new, and the partisan divide that such anger fosters may have pushed us further down a path toward widespread violence than we realize. One recent working paper found that the more partisan people become, the more likely they are to rationalize violence against those they don’t agree with, to experience schadenfreude or moral disinterest when they see an opponent get attacked, and even to endorse physical assaults on other groups. “Though most Americans reject violence, as more of us embrace strong partisanship, the prevalence of lethal partisanship is likely to grow,” wrote the political scientists Lilliana Mason and Nathan Kalmoe.
We should, in other words, be worried, perhaps even more than we already are. It seems like our current madness should be reaching its apex, that relief ought to be on the horizon. But the sources of our anger run deeper than the present political moment.
Cable news, Twitter, politicians who now do more campaigning than governing—their every incentive is to keep us angry. But we own some of the guilt, too.
I’m not proud to admit that I know what it feels like to relish seeing an opponent get his comeuppance. I profess to hate what cable news is doing to the national conversation, but I still tune in. I decry the nasty discourse on Twitter, then check back the next hour to refresh my outrage. I deplore the nation’s rank partisanship, but I rarely split my ballot.
My anger has become a burden. Perhaps yours has too. And yet we can’t turn away. The anger impulse is too deeply encoded, the thrill too genuine. So where do we go from here?
V. A Better Use for our Fury
The plan, on the face of it, seemed crazy. A group of Israeli social scientists wanted to conduct an experiment disguised as an advertising campaign. The ads would run in a small, conservative Tel Aviv suburb, where many people were religious and supported right-wing politicians. The goal was to persuade the residents to abandon their anger toward Palestinians and agree that Israel should freeze construction of Jewish settlements in Gaza and the West Bank, among other concessions.
The suburb they were hoping to convert, Giv’at Shmuel, was known for being strenuously opposed to anything associated with peaceniks, liberals, or anyone who said anything good about peaceniks or liberals. A few years earlier, residents had stood along a highway to throw rocks at passing cars simply because they suspected that the drivers might be headed to a gay-pride march.
The proposed experiment ran counter to most of psychology’s conventional teachings. The best-known theory regarding how to reduce conflict and prejudice within a population was known as the “contact hypothesis”: If you can just get everyone who hates each other to talk in a controlled, respectful manner, this doctrine holds, they’ll eventually start speaking civilly. They won’t like each other. But prejudices may fade, and moral outrages will mellow.
The researchers figured that the contact hypothesis had clearly been developed by someone who had never visited Israel. Polls in Giv’at Shmuel were very clear. The residents didn’t want to spend time with Palestinians. They also didn’t want a bunch of academics lecturing them on how to become more open-minded. So the researchers came up with a clever idea. Don’t tell everyone in Giv’at Shmuel that they’re wrong. Tell them that they’re right: A perpetual war with Israel’s neighbors made a lot of sense. If anything, the people of Giv’at Shmuel ought to be angrier.
With the help of an advertising agency, the social scientists created online ads celebrating the tension between Israelis and Palestinians, and extolling the virtues of fighting for fighting’s sake. One ad showed iconic photos of Israeli war heroes and proclaimed, “Without [war] we wouldn’t have had heroes. For the heroes, we probably need the conflict.” The ad was scored with Wagner’s “Flight of the Valkyries.” Another ad featured footage of a soldier with a machine gun petting a kitten and an infantryman helping an old man cross the street. “What a Wonderful World” played in the background. Its tagline read, “Without [war] we would never be moral. For morality, we probably need the conflict.” The ads, along with brochures and billboards, began appearing in Giv’at Shmuel in 2015. Over a six-week period, according to polling, nearly all of its 25,000 residents saw them.
Three days after the experiment started, the so-called Lone Wolf Intifada began, a wave of violent assaults across Israel that the researchers figured would make the people of Giv’at Shmuel even more polarized. And yet, when the researchers conducted polls in the suburb at the end of the advertising campaign, the residents who had held the most extreme views at the outset of the experiment appeared to have softened. The percentage of right-leaning residents who said that Arabs were solely responsible for Israel’s past wars decreased by 23 percent. The number of conservatives who said Israel should be more aggressive toward Palestinians fell by 17 percent. Incredibly, even though the advertisements never mentioned settlements, 78 percent more people said that Israel should consider freezing construction in the West Bank and Gaza. (Residents in nearby towns who hadn’t seen the ads were surveyed as a control; they showed no such evolution in their views over the same period.)
A year after the ads had ceased, by which time some residents had trouble recalling the specifics of the campaign, polls still showed greater tolerance. The campaign wasn’t a panacea, but it is among the most successful conflict interventions in contemporary social science.
The campaign worked, the social scientists believe, because instead of telling people they were wrong, the ads agreed with them—to embarrassing, offensive extremes. “No one wants to think of themselves as some angry crank,” one of the researchers, Eran Halperin, told me. “No one wants to be lumped in with extremists or the angriest fringe.” Sometimes, however, we don’t realize we’ve become extremists until someone makes it painfully obvious.
As America reaches the midpoint of a presidential administration that has driven nearly everyone into a rage of one kind or another, we are at a crossroads: Will we continue, blindly furious? Or will we see our rage as a disease that must be cured? The goal shouldn’t be to eradicate anger. We couldn’t if we tried, and as James Averill’s study showed, we need our anger. We need it to air our grievances with our friends, family, and colleagues. We also need the moral outrage that motivates citizens to push for a more just society. Neither the left nor the right has a monopoly on justice; likewise, injustice can come from either side. But, in particular, people who have historically been denied the right to express their anger—the women of the #MeToo movement, the activists of Black Lives Matter—shouldn’t be expected to give up the fight now.
Still, we can’t maintain this fever pitch, or we will risk forfeiting the gains that good anger can bring. The most immediate task is to recognize our anger for what it often is. The researchers in Israel held up a mirror to the residents of Giv’at Shmuel in the hopes that the reflection would shock them. Americans would benefit from taking a similarly hard look at their reflection—and we don’t need to enlist the help of social scientists to do so. In a sense, all of America has been living in Giv’at Shmuel for the past two years. The things the president says at his rallies are so extreme that they are essentially absurdist provocations. Antifa activists are brawling in the streets with the Proud Boys. The vitriol on display each night on cable news—and even on late-night comedy shows—is over the top. And no matter your political persuasion, your Facebook feed likely contains posts that would make the ads in Giv’at Shmuel look sober.
When we scrutinize the sources of our anger, we should see clearly that our rage is often being stoked not for our benefit but for someone else’s. If we can stop and see the anger merchants’ self-serving motives, we can perhaps start to loosen their grip on us.hr">
Yet we can’t pin the blame entirely on the anger profiteers. At the heart of much of our discontent is a very real sense that our government systems are broken. Larry Cagle wasn’t wrong to be livid at a state government that refused to allocate funds to educate the next generation of Oklahomans; his mistake was succumbing to the view that the only way to fix the system was to destroy it.
Many of the nation’s most contentious issues are driven by a feeling that our institutions have failed us. Historically, this feeling has been at the root of some of America’s most important movements for change. Ours, too, could be a moment for progress, if we can channel our anger to good ends, rather than the vanquishing of our enemies.
“It is not enough for people to be angry,” Martin Luther King Jr. told an audience at Carnegie Hall in February 1968. It was the 100th anniversary of the birth of W. E. B. Du Bois, and King hoped to remind those in attendance of his teachings, but also of his methods. Du Bois, King said, had been an angry radical his whole life. He had furiously called for resistance. But he had also sought to make his enemies into allies. He had overcome his anger in the hopes of finding peace.
As King spoke, protests were happening in New York and Paris. Soldiers were dying in Vietnam. Just over a month later, King would be assassinated in Memphis.
“Above all, he did not content himself with hurling invectives for emotional release and then to retire into smug, passive satisfaction,” King said to the crowd about Du Bois. “The supreme task is to organize and unite people so that their anger becomes a transforming force.”
This article appears in the January/February 2019 print edition with the headline “Why Are We So Angry?”
Source : https://www.theatlantic.com/magazine/archive/2019/01/charles-duhigg-american-anger/576424/3024