Character  &  Context

Anger, aggression, and you – interventions that make us less likely to lash out

Image of a perplexed man looking at his tablet

By: Khandis Blake

We’ve all had experiences where someone – maybe it’s even been you – has flown off the handle when something didn’t go their way. 

Sometimes it’s benign and even humorous, like when two-year old Claudia Chaudhary threw herself prostrate on the floor of the White House in front of Barrack Obama, banging her fists in anger. More often though, especially when we’re dealing with larger, adult-sized people – reacting with anger and aggression can have an enormous social cost.
Take, for example, road rage. Research indicates that around 20-35% of all US drivers have engaged in some kind of road rage – yelling, cursing, obscenely gesturing at other drivers. A report by the AAA Foundation for Traffic Safety also implicated aggressive driving as a factor in half of all road fatalities from 2003 to 2007. 
Frustrating driving experiences are very common; we’ve all experienced them. There you are, driving to work, running late for a meeting. You’ll get there on time as long as you get through this traffic light – but then some guy swerves in front of you and cuts you off as the light turns red. 
For some people – we might call them the tranquil, non-reactive yogi types – a calm, meditative breath is enough to let go of this minor irritation. Others might mutter to themselves or glare at the car in the distance, while some might communicate their feelings with a rude gesture or a blast of their horn. Then there are those who would wind down the window and yell obscenities, or even run the red light to tailgate the offender, letting them know a piece of their minds (or even fists).
So what is it that separates those breathe-easy, deep wells of meditative calmness from those of us who constantly seem pent-up and ready-to-pounce? Are some people just angry jerks, while others are peaceful no matter what the provocation? Recent research suggests you can actually train people to better control and regulate their anger and aggression. These kinds of training regimes can even be in areas other than aggression, providing indirect benefits to the individual as well.
Reducing aggression and cognitive reappraisal
One promising avenue for reducing aggression is through cognitive reappraisal. For the more clinically minded, you might recognize reappraisal as a technique used in cognitive behavioral therapy.  For anger reduction, cognitive reappraisal occurs when you take an emotionally-charged, anger-provoking incident – like the jackhammer that woke me up at 6 a.m. this morning – and reinterpret it into neutral, less emotional terms (like: “You needed to get out of bed anyway. Time to get a coffee”). 
One way cognitive reappraisal is facilitated is through mitigating information. Let’s say, for example, that our bad driver from earlier was in fact racing to hospital with his heavily pregnant wife in the car who was about to give birth. If we knew this prior to the incident or shortly thereafter, we’d likely move our car over so they could get through, irrespective of our own tardiness. Research has shown that mitigating information like this facilitates what’s called cognitive reappraisal. In turn, studies demonstrate that early reappraisal can allow us to reduce our anger/aggression before experiencing a full-blown emotional response.
Mitigating information doesn’t always have to happen before we get angry– it can also reduce anger and aggression after the fact. Maybe when you get home that day, you see a news story of that bad driver with his grateful wife and their newborn baby, and suddenly it all clicks into place. Late reappraisal in this way can lessen anger and even vengeance in response to provocations, with experimental research and a meta-analysis showing significant effects. 
Upping your self-control training can make you less angry
One exciting prospect for anger and aggression reduction is self-control training. By improving our general ability to resist urges and implement preferred behaviors instead, self-control training can help people to resist the urge to lash out. 
Experiments that assess the effect of self-control training usually involve having participants practice self-control in an area unrelated to aggression, typically for two weeks or more. In one study, for example, participants in the self-control conditions practiced using their non-dominant hand for everyday activities or practiced controlling their verbal behavior (e.g., by avoiding slang). After two weeks, participants showed less inclination towards aggression in hypothetical situations designed to provoke an aggressive response. These results have been replicated elsewhere, with findings also indicating that self-control training results in reduced feelings of anger.
One of the things that’s so neat about this research is that it demonstrates that elevating self-control in one domain can affect self-control in unrelated areas. By resisting immediate temptations to act out, people can act less aggressively and also feel less angry. 
Inhibiting hostility with cognitive control training
More specific methods for reducing aggression have focused specifically on encouraging cognitive control in potentially hostile situations. So rather than broadly improving one’s general ability to resist urges, cognitive control training supports people to inhibit their urge to aggressively lash out when presented with aggressive cues. 
Cognitive control involves monitoring emotionally relevant stimuli and initiating control processes when a conflict is detected between one’s ideal and optimal state. So basically you train people to self-detect an increase in anger or aggressiveness, then initiate some kind of anger-reducing process or action.
In one study, participants were trained in a modified flanker task to exercise inhibitory control in response to aggressive cues. Compared to a control group, participants in the cognitive control condition were less aggressive toward a provocateur. The effect was even greater for people who were biased to jump to hostile attributions.
Anger, aggression, and… mindfulness?
A promising intervention for reducing aggression and anger is mindfulness. Mindfulness is a bit of a buzz word right now, and involves a state of non-judgmental awareness where people focus on the present moment, with the intention of accepting their current physical and mental experiences (see this link for more). More research is needed to examine whether mindfulness can reduce aggression. A few studies have been conducted, but a recent review acknowledges that many have methodological limitations that warrant further investigation. However, results so far do show promise. 
In one study, participants practiced a brief mindfulness intervention then were socially rejected. And when I say the intervention was brief, I mean really brief – the mindfulness intervention involves only a few minutes concentrating mindfully on eating a raisin! Results showed that people who were rejected but first practiced mindfulness were less aggressive afterwards than participants not exposed to mindfulness. In fact, they showed the same level of aggressiveness as people who weren’t even rejected in the first place. So while the jury is out on the mechanisms underlying the ability of mindfulness to reduce anger and aggression, the research topic definitely deserves future exploration.
Where to from here?
It’s the cold hard truth that life provides a myriad of opportunities for anger provocation. While angry outbursts might provide some relief in the moment, people rarely feel good after losing their tempers. Interventions that reduce anger and aggression can help lessen the social, psychological, physical, and financial costs of rage-related incidents, and interventions like mindfulness and self-control training can also provide broad benefits in a variety of life domains. 
Khandis R. Blake is a Ph.D. candidate at the University of New South Wales. Find her on Twitter - @KhandisBlake


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