Monday, June 11, 2007

I Heart my Anger Management Problem

Well, it looks like there's hope for me after all. I'm frequently told I'm "angry" and "short-tempered" or that, as one of my old bosses once put it (I swear I'm not making this up), that I have a "negative personality" and an "astounding, almost superhuman, talent for pissing people off." While I wouldn't go all that far (in his defense, I had just been punched in the staffroom by a mentally unstable coworker, so it's the kind of situation where you tend to exaggeration) - I do realize I'm a bit of a hot-head. Fortunately for me, science has come around and decided this is probably a good thing!

I ran across two scientific arguments in favor of getting angry now and then today, actually. The first one is an article called Anger Fuels Better Decisions that I found on Yahoo! News. This line is a good summary:

Despite its reputation as an impetus to rash behavior, anger actually seems to help people make better choices - even aiding those who are usually very poor at thinking rationally. This could be because angry people base their decisions on the cues that "really matter" rather than things that can be called irrelevant or a distraction.

The study basically involved showing groups of university students two written arguments that university students are financially irresponsible. One argument was solid, the other was apparently based on obvious fallacies. The control group was simply asked to evaluate the arguments, but the experimental group was first "made angry" (by having them recall times they'd been angry at someone in some detail). Apparently the experimental group was better able to spot the fallacies in the crappy argument and tended to reject it outright, whereas the control group rated both arguments roughly equally on whatever "persuasiveness" scale they were using. Conclusion - anger helps you focus and think more clearly. NICE! More gratifying for me (I'm not totally sure why) was a followup where the researchers additionally told the students that for each argument they were shown it had come from either a financial planning service with relevant expertise, or a medical research group with comparatively little expertise. It was found that the "angry" group was also more consistent at identifying the strong argument regardless of who had made it, whereas the control group was more likely to show an effect favoring the financial planning service independent of strength of argument.

The second one is an article called Anger is Good for You. The basic idea:

People who respond to stressful situations with short-term anger or indignation have a sense of control and optimism that lacks in those who respond with fear.

And in fact, I do think of myself as a generally optimistic person in control of his own life. This study had people counting backward from a certain inconvenient number by 13s (!!!) while the researchers would goad them, telling them they were doing a crappy job, that they needed to go faster, that they were stupid, etc. Some sort of psych magic spell was cast to determine, from facial expression, whether people were responding with anger or fear - and apparenty those that responded with anger also performed better at the task.

Unfortunately for me, they also add:

Chronic, explosive anger or a hostile outlook on the world is still bad for you, contributing to heart disease and high blood pressure, research shows.

And in fact, I do have high blood pressure in "rest state" (the problem vanishes when I am getting regular exercise - which I assume is because I release aggression that way).

With regard to my boss' opinion that I have a "negative personality," there is also evidence that some people subconsciously get off on making others angry. The general point of this one:

He and lead author Michelle Wirth measured testosterone levels in volunteers and then had them do a computer task in which certain complex keyboard sequences triggered different images on the computer screen -- an angry face, a neutral face, or no face.

Males and females with higher testosterone levels than other members of the same sex learned the angry face sequence better than the other sequences. This did not happen among volunteers with lower testosterone levels.

I'm not sure how strong a basis this is for concluding that some people "like provoking anger." And I have no idea what my general testosterone level is; I'm not sure I've ever seen the results of measuring it (do they do that in general physicals when they take your blood sample or something?). I do, however, have the "correct" index-ring finger ratio.

This study will be familiar to most people, I'm sure - but supposedly there is a correlation between the ratio in sizes between the index and ring finger in men and how much testosterone they were exposed to in utero. The more testosterone you got during gestation, the closer in size the two fingers are suppose to be. Or, more accurately, the shorter the index finger relative to the ring finger the more testosterone you were exposed to etc. Males with short index fingers relative to their ring fingers are supposed to be more aggressive later in life. My index and ring fingers are almost exactly the same size - so my anger management problem is a poster child for these results, I guess. I should add, though, that the study found that this only accounts for 5% (typical popscience thing to claim - HOW did they determine this precise-sounding result, hmmm???) of the relevant behavior.

Anyway, I found all this rather gratifying (erm, to the extent it was convincing, I mean, which is probably not all that much if you go over the studies with a microscope). To hell with Zen - moderation is for monks! Let's get pissed (off)!!!


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