DUBNER: Note to self: Never offer Angela any form of turkey.
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DUCKWORTH: I’m Angela Duckworth.
DUBNER: I’m Stephen Dubner.
DUCKWORTH + DUBNER: And you’re listening to No Stupid Questions.
Today on the show: What makes people angry?
DUBNER: Now I’m getting pissed off at your challenge.
DUCKWORTH: Now you’re getting kind of worked up about it.
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DUBNER: Angela, in our pursuit of understanding more deeply what are traditionally called the seven deadly sins, we have come today to wrath, more commonly known as anger.
DUCKWORTH: It sounds so much better as wrath though, don’t you think?
DUBNER: Let’s call it wrath! And this brings us to a question that we received from a listener named Grant Ashby. And I suggest that if you aren’t already sitting, you sit down. So, Grant writes to say, “I used to read stories of people showing unbelievable compassion and forgiveness, even when they’re the victim of a huge crime or misfortune. I was always slightly confused as to what made them want to forgive until last year,” he writes, “I was violently robbed with a machete in London and ended up in hospital with severed muscles, bone, tendons, and needing emergency surgery. When I woke up, I felt gratitude that I was alive and that I had my family around me. My family were angry, but not really me. I can’t quite explain it. It wasn’t that I wasn’t upset or traumatized, but just not angry. So my questions are what makes people angry? Is it nature or nurture? Predisposed or situational?” And he signs off, “Best, Grant.” Unbelievable.
DUCKWORTH: Honestly, Stephen, I don’t even know what a machete is, but it sounds terrible.
DUBNER: A machete is a big knife that you use to hack your way through a jungle. It’s something you don’t want to come across when you’re not at the handle end of it.
DUCKWORTH: Okay. Thank you.
DUBNER: So, Angie, I open it to you. Let’s start with his first question. What do we know about the causes of anger in a given person?
DUCKWORTH: It’s interesting because anger is quite obviously an emotion. Some of these seven deadly sins are really behavioral, like things that you do to other people or to yourself. You know, gluttony, sloth, those are actions. I guess, sloth, you could argue is an inaction. But anger — and also envy — are emotions. In the 21st century —.
DUBNER: Why are we punishing people for feeling emotions?
DUCKWORTH: Yeah, we’re supposed to be allowed to feel things. And I think a lot of people today would say that anger is maybe even a necessary emotion and that we absolutely shouldn’t vilify people who are experiencing this emotion. So to state the obvious, anger, I think most people would argue, is a negative emotion in the sense that if you ask people, “would you like to experience some anger right now for five minutes?” Most people would say, “No, I would prefer not to experience anger,” just like they wouldn’t want to experience anxiety or sadness. However, evolutionarily, that doesn’t mean it’s not adaptive. And I think the strong view of scientists who study emotion is that every single emotion that can be regularly measured across culture, meaning it’s kind of part of the human experience — every single one, at least in moderate amounts, must have some adaptive value in terms of survival, or we wouldn’t have these emotions.
DUBNER: I see a certain satisfaction that many people, and I would probably include myself in that, sometimes, gain from getting stirred up about something — for a lot of reasons. Anger can lead you to action. It can lead you to empathy. So why do you say that most people necessarily would rather not experience it? And I’m being only maybe 40 percent devil’s advocate here, for the record.
DUCKWORTH: Only 40 percent, Stephen.
DUBNER: Forty-three. Wait, 52. Now I’m getting pissed off at your challenge.
DUCKWORTH: Now you’re getting kind of worked up about it. Let’s try to differentiate anger from other negative emotions. So all emotions are arrayed on this kind of positive to negative spectrum, but another dimension on which you can array all emotions are “approach” versus “avoidance.” As we’ve discussed before, anger is not only a negative emotion, it’s an approach emotion. So we have this evolutionarily hardwired capacity for anger, but anger gets us to do something. and what it gets you to do — what its “action tendency” is — is aggression.
DUBNER: Far be it from me to question your description of the quality and the direction of anger and that it leads to aggression. But I could imagine that there are a variety of other potential paths for one’s anger. I’ll give you an example. Richard Feynman, the physicist who I mention now and again, because he’s kind of a hero of mine.
DUCKWORTH: Who you’re obsessed with.
DUBNER: I’m a little bit obsessed. I was reading or listening to a speech he gave. I couldn’t even tell you to whom he gave this speech. I believe it was some group of fellow scientists. But anyway, he was talking about the rise of junk science and astrology and alternative medical treatments that were mostly what he considered garbage. And this was probably in the early to mid-1980s is my guess. And he said, “We have done a really poor job by choosing not to engage in this argument. This should make us angry. We’ve got people out there who, to the public, seem like a different version of us, scientists. We spend all our time, all our resources, all our brain cells working so hard to answer one tiny question or solve one tiny problem. And that’s really hard to do well. They just march in and say, ‘Yeah, you know, if you put some scotch tape on your upper lip at night, then your cancer’s going to go away. Or if you pray facing such and such direction, you’re going to become instantly wealthy.'” And he said, “It’s not enough for us to sit back and make fun of them in our minds or dismiss them. We need to get riled up. And we need to go out there and preach what we think of as the real gospel, the scientific gospel.” And so that’s an example where I can see anger can lead one to a — let’s call it a pro-social —.
DUCKWORTH: A positive, pro-social —. Yeah. I’m buying because — and I have to say this is relatively recent. I’m somebody who only figured out in the last year or so that negative emotions really should be considered first and foremost as emotions that must have some informational value, and then only secondarily as, “do I want to experience this or do I not want to experience this?” And when Richard Feynman says that we as scientists ought to feel anger, I think what he’s saying is that in the absence of anger, we are not going to do what anger gets you to do. I do want to say something about what Feynman is recounting. I think most people who study anger would say it’s typically experienced when the harm that’s being done is being done to you who is feeling angry. And the distinction is sometimes made between anger and indignation. So if I believe that somebody is wronging Stephen, you know, I can feel indignation. But anger is typically, like “you harmed me.”
DUBNER: I would respectfully disagree. I think a lot of people get angry at a lot of things that don’t affect them directly. I would even make the argument that we are living in a political, social moment where a lot of people feel that way too many other people are way too angry about things that don’t directly affect them.
DUCKWORTH: Fair enough. You know, anger is a word. It’s a feeling that we put this word to. I think that these emotion researchers like to make these nuanced distinctions between indignation on one hand, anger a close cousin. The same distinctions can be made between anger and resentment, which is when you’ve harmed me, but also it has a moral tinge. So these nuances may be less helpful for the lay public who’s just feeling angry, right? Like, “I’m mad. I’m feeling this negative emotion. It makes me feel like I want to rectify the situation.” I’m going to tell you a story which is so ridiculous compared to the machete that it’s embarrassing to tell —.
DUBNER: This is something that happened to you that was way below machete, but you did get very angry. Is that where we’re going?
DUCKWORTH: It is. So Grant, forgive me. Because I know you were talking about something which shouldn’t even be on the same scale. But let me just talk about anger towards inanimate objects. Like how many of us have like, whacked our shin on a coffee table and experienced this hot flash of anger directed toward the coffee table, right? And so have I told you my story of the after-school turkey sandwich?
DUBNER: This wasn’t about the kid who ate a turkey sandwich and vomited on the jungle gym. That wasn’t a turkey sandwich, was it?
DUCKWORTH: No, that was George. And it was a cheese sandwich. Always cheese. Like white American cheese on white bread.
DUBNER: It is interesting not only how often sandwiches enter our conversation, but the many different roles they play.
DUCKWORTH: I know. Life is a sandwich.
DUBNER: Let me hear about this terrible turkey sandwich and what it did to you.
DUCKWORTH: I can’t believe I remember this all these many years hence. But it’s elementary school. Maybe I’m like fourth or fifth grade. I’m old enough to make myself a sandwich. And I’m a latchkey kid and so I come home. And I make myself this turkey sandwich. But, I don’t want it to be a normal turkey sandwich. I’m so hungry, I want it to be like a triple decker.
DUBNER: A Dagwood!
DUCKWORTH: And it looks like a comic strip sandwich. So it’s got like layers of turkey, and I guess there must have been lettuce and tomato in there.
DUBNER: Wait, did you actually use three slices of bread?
DUCKWORTH: Yes! And this is very important to the narrative here. So, I build this awesome comic-strip-worthy sandwich, and I put a toothpick in the top because it’s structurally unsound. And every time I lean over and pick up the gosh darn sandwich — notice the lack of swearing there, Stephen — the gosh darn sandwich.
DUBNER: Very well done.
DUCKWORTH: Thank you. So, it just like falls apart. Like the bread starts to disintegrate, then stuff starts spilling out over the carpet. And, I was so mad that I ripped apart the turkey sandwich, you know, covered in mayo and everything, and I just flung it into all corners of the room. I happened to be in my dad’s like home study. So —
DUBNER: Would you have done that if you were in your bedroom?
DUCKWORTH: I think I may have, because the thing is about this lovely emotion that we have programmed into us, at least the capacity nature has given us the capacity for anger. And the experience of anger is very sudden. You don’t stop to think like, “wait, I’m in my own bedroom. Maybe I don’t want to do that.” And I had to clean it up either way.
DUBNER: How did you feel in the immediate aftermath?
DUCKWORTH: It probably made me even more angry that I now had to — I mean, it was a huge mess.
DUBNER: Also, you’re hungry.
DUCKWORTH: I was hangry and angry. And I had to clean up this mess. But this idea that we can be angry at a turkey sandwich, that we can be angry at like a coffee table — you could argue that you’re really angry at yourself.
DUBNER: I have so much to say in response to what you’ve given us so far today. No. 1, note to self: never offer Angela any form of turkey. If I invite you ever to a Thanksgiving, we’re going to serve an alternate meat. Okay? No. 2, I probably overstated the degree to which Richard Feynman said we should get “angry” about this. That was my interpretation of reading him, But, he may not have necessarily been calling for his fellow physicists to gather up pitchforks and go out and stab the astrologers.
DUCKWORTH: I want to read you the four items on the Seven Deadly Sins Scale: “Yelling at other people when I’m mad, taking revenge, blurting out angry insults when I’m threatened, punishing others for taking advantage of me.” I’m pretty sure that Saint Feynman didn’t mean those kinds of behaviors, so I think you’re right that the emotion of anger can lead you to take action that can be positive, but so often it’s negative or harmful. I think that’s probably why it’s a seven deadly sin.
DUBNER: Right, but one of the beauties of talking about the seven deadly sins, this list of prohibitions that were generated more than a millennium ago by the Catholic Church, is that we can compare what was seen as sin-ly and deadly back then to how we feel about things now. So in this case, it sounds as though anger has a lot of staying power, right? That anger is very similar now as it was, let’s say 1,500, 1,800 years ago in that it leads to actions that can be really harmful. However, I would like to posit that we’ve probably progressed at least a little bit. You are — for me and for everybody listening to this — an amazing role model because the fact that it took you until the last year to understand the potentially positive valances of negative emotions like anger, the fact that it has a real value. I think that’s really encouraging for all of us.
DUCKWORTH: That was a little vulnerability moment there for me, Stephen. I had to confess that I was like 51 when I realized that negative emotions aren’t so bad.
DUBNER: I appreciate your vulnerability. I appreciate your willingness to keep learning. But even more than that, I appreciate the fact that if someone like you doesn’t have a grip on all the negative emotions by now, hey, that means it’s okay for me to not yet either, and to learn from you. As you’re talking now, the image I cannot get out of my mind — almost every conversation we have now, Angela, — are those three boxes with the arrows between. Do you remember the three boxes you described to me?
DUCKWORTH: I do, because I think you emailed me sometime in the last few weeks. And you were like, “What are the three boxes?” And I had no idea what you were talking about. But then you contextualized it, So this idea, which you can call the three boxes idea if you would like, but I think James Gross at Stanford University might prefer the term “the process model” —.
DUBNER: No. Three boxes model is way better.
DUCKWORTH: That might make him angry. But, he’s very good at emotion regulation because James Gross is a world authority on emotion regulation. And he has spent his entire career, much of it at Stanford, trying to understand, where do emotions come from, and how do they link up to our actions, but also the world? Like what situations lead to these things? And It’s a simplification, actually, of James’s process model because that actually has five boxes. I find five to be an extremely large number when it comes to things that human beings can retain.
DUBNER: Except for poker, maybe. Five is a good number for poker.
DUCKWORTH: That’s so true. There are many things that come in fives. But let me start with the three. And then we can add a little bit of nuance. So here are the three boxes in a very simple version of the process model of emotion. The first box is the objective situation. “You are in London, and you are being attacked by somebody with a machete.” Or: “you’re in your dad’s home study, and you’re in fourth grade, and you’ve got a turkey sandwich in front of you.” I mean, it’s just the actual situation that you’re in. The second box is now in your head, which is that you’re now perceiving your situation. It’s often called “appraisal” — talk about the way words are usually used. People think of jewelry being appraised. But here, what psychologists mean by appraisal is your subjective interpretation of your objective situation.
DUBNER: So I’m in a situation. And I know that. But you are leading yourself to actually look at that situation as objectively as you can, and say, not only “What are the facts here,” but do you start to consider your options and your actions at this point?
DUCKWORTH: When you take the world and you put it into your head — you’re like, “What’s going on here?” — you mentioned, like, you try to be as objective as possible. Sure. I mean, people try to get this right, but I think the key is that it’s subjective. It feels objective, and I think that leads to some problems sometimes. But it is subjective. Everywhere you are, you have an appraisal in your head of what’s going on. It feels like ground truth, but it’s really Stephen making up a story of what’s going on here. The interesting feature of this model is that it’s supposed to describe not only unusual occurrences, but just the way we process reality 24/7. So the second box is like, at all times, you are constructing some movie in your head of what’s going on here. And you as a human being have just very limited information about what’s really going on here. You also are speaking from the position of being Stephen, so you have your own biases or history. I am experiencing the same objective reality, but I’m experiencing it as Angela with whatever’s going on for me. So this second box in the three-box theory, the real key here is that it is subjective and not objective.
DUBNER: I understand that it is subjective because it’s an internal assessment or appraisal as you put it. But the way that I was using your three boxes — because I’ve been using them daily, multiple times daily. I love it. I can’t believe it took three years of making No Stupid Questions for me to get something useful out of this. No, there have been — there have been many, many things, but seriously, this is the best and the biggest. The way I was interpreting it, I’ve been looking at that first box as, okay, these are the facts. And the reason I find it’s useful to have that in a box is because I feel we often rush past that in our decision making. Then the second one, the way I interpreted the way you described this in the past was that now I have a choice. I have a choice to make a decision based on my cognitive rational thinking assessment of the facts on the ground and where I want to get to, or I can respond emotionally to what’s in that first box. And that will lead me to a different action. So I think I’m interpreting differently — call it wrongly if you want. I don’t care. Because, when you find a model that’s useful for you, you should adapt it to yourself.
DUCKWORTH: I think that we say to ourselves sometimes like, “I should make a more objective appraisal. I should be more rational about it.” But the fact of the matter is, Stephen, no matter what you do, whatever you come to is still subjective. We have no real access to the first box. We only have the second box.
DUBNER: Let me argue with you a little bit. That first box, when I first heard you describe it, what I heard then is basically what I hear now, which is you saying you’re assessing the reality. For me, however, “the reality” — let’s put that in quotes — is often complicated. For instance, if I’m going to make a decision that’s not just about me — and I would say that almost every decision we make involves other people — then another factor that I would really like to consider as the facts on the ground or a piece of data, something that belongs in that first box, is: what are the motivations and the incentives and the emotions of the other people in this ecosystem?
DUCKWORTH: All of the things that you’re talking about are in the second box though. You’re like, “Let me bring my attention to what this other person must be feeling.” Or like, “Were there extenuating circumstances.” Anything that you say to yourself about what’s going on is in the second box because that’s your mental model of the first box. The first box is just literally what’s going on. It’s not psychological yet.
DUBNER: So you’re saying I’m just taking some things from the second box and moving them backwards into the first box.
DUCKWORTH: I think so.
DUBNER: This second box is getting really crowded.
DUCKWORTH: It’s really big, and that’s why there’s a five box version. Let me finish the three-box model.
DUBNER: Good luck. Because at the rate at which I’m interrupting, you’re going to finish the third box by next Monday.
DUCKWORTH: Okay, granted that second box — appraisal, interpretation, what’s going on here — it’s a big box. And I think most of therapy, at least contemporary therapy, is like trying to unpack your second box. Like, how are you making sense of your marriage? And that third box is basically your response to your appraisal. So that’s the three-box theory, or the “process model” theory, of emotion. There’s an objective situation, you appraise it, and that leads you to a response — an emotional response or, and here’s where he and I ended up collaborating — he was talking about emotion regulation, but I was thinking: this is a model for all of human behavior — whether it’s an emotion or, like, you turn left or you eat a turkey sandwich or you throw the turkey sandwich across the room, whatever it is that you could say is a human response.
Still to come on No Stupid Questions, more from listener Grant on how he felt in the aftermath of a violent assault.
DUCKWORTH: What a guy.
* * *
Now, back to Stephen and Angela’s conversation about wrath.
DUBNER: Let’s take modern day Angela, not fourth grade Angela who throws turkey sandwiches, and not even the Angela from three years ago. When we started this show, you would mention quite frequently your occasional bursts of anger, what we call losing our temper.
DUCKWORTH: Like Pompeii, rare but fatal.
DUBNER: I kind of didn’t believe it because you just didn’t seem like the kind of person that would lose one’s temper. But I came to believe it because, you know, I trust you. You’re not a liar.
DUCKWORTH: I was going to say, because I lost my temper at you? No, but just because I kept saying it over and over again, I seemed credible.
DUBNER: Yeah. I don’t think you have lost your — But you had enough concrete examples of things that you did that made me think, okay, yeah, it really does happen. So anyway, you say that only in the last year have you come to appreciate the positive values or the utility, let’s say, of some negative emotions. But also, you’ve told me before that you feel you are doing better with keeping your temper, with not exhibiting that anger. I want to know, why? Why do you think you’ve been able to regulate to that degree?
DUCKWORTH: I first want to confess that I still score higher on wrath than on, I think, any of the other seven deadly sins. I’m pretty high on pride too, unfortunately.
DUBNER: You’re low in lust, we’ve established, but high on wrath.
DUCKWORTH: Pretty much. But I have made progress.
DUBNER: On the wrath scale, how do you compare to others in your survey?
DUCKWORTH: I don’t know yet. Because we’re offering the scale to our listeners, after most of the sins have been discussed, then I’m going to actually look at all the data. And I will tell you then.
DUBNER: If you had to guess, would you say that you are toward the upper bound?
DUCKWORTH: I would say I’m probably not toward the upper bound. I think relative to other sins in my life, but I don’t actually often yell at other people when I’m mad. I don’t often, I think, like, take revenge, etc. I do think though that, wherever I am relative to the population, I can more easily reflect on like, where I am relative to where I was before, probably the more useful question. I think I’ve been doing a little bit of what has been called reappraisal. So this second box is your subjective appraisal of what’s actually going on. “Reappraisal” is changing what you’re thinking. There’s basically two ways to attack this middle box, and so I’m going to divide that box into two boxes. One is attention, and the other one is your evaluation of whatever you’re paying attention to. Say for example, I steal James’s Prius.
DUBNER: Does he have a Prius, or are you making this up?
DUCKWORTH: Of course, he does. You know, San Francisco, Stanford. Some stereotypes are true.
DUBNER: And you’re angry about the fact that he owns a Prius, it sounds like?
DUCKWORTH: It does not make me angry. It just makes me laugh.
DUBNER: Do you feel he’s morally superior to you by driving a hybrid?
DUCKWORTH: I think James Gross is morally superior to everyone, except for maybe Richard Feynman.
DUBNER: Wait a minute. I don’t want to give a false impression of Feynman. I don’t think anyone, including Feynman’s own family, would claim that he was a moral paragon from head to toe. Just for the record. I’ve seen some clues that he’s not someone who you would necessarily hire as a Sunday school teacher, let’s put it that way.
DUCKWORTH: Maybe. Depends on the Sunday school.
DUBNER: Wait, how did we get here?
DUCKWORTH: I don’t know. I was talking to you about reappraisal, and then suddenly we were talking about Feynman.
DUBNER: Oh, you were saying that for James Gross, we are all morally inferior.
DUCKWORTH: I really was. And I stand by that. And if anybody wants to submit a nomination for somebody who is more emotionally regulated or morally upstanding than James Gross, then I’d be happy to consider it.
DUBNER: Basically, you’re inviting the entire universe to write in with dirt on James Gross.
DUCKWORTH: And bash on — yeah that’s true.
DUBNER: I think you are a little angry. I think your anger is manifesting itself in a left-handed call out for—.
DUCKWORTH: Well, let me finish. And then you can diagnose me at the end, Stephen.
DUBNER: By the way, I feel we’re making great progress in this session, Dr. Duckworth.
DUCKWORTH: So this idea of what you can do about this appraisal that you’ve come to, right? Say you don’t want to feel angry. That is very often how I feel. So what the advice would be is that you could pay attention to other things. So say — let me use myself as an example, because I think it’s just a little easier than me like, making up some ridiculous Prius stealing from James’s driveway. So say, for example, I’m in an argument with Jason. about some misunderstanding — like Jason comes home and I thought he was supposed to come home at a different time — I could pay attention to things that would either amplify or actually decrease my anger. So I could pay attention to: “Oh, there must be some extenuating circumstance for you not coming home when we had previously agreed that you would come home.” And in Grant’s circumstance, he may be paying attention to things other than the fact that whoever it was that committed this horrific crime obviously had harm in their hearts. You know, it was unjust. It created lasting damage. But he might, for example — like, think about why would this person possibly end up in a situation where they’re like robbing people on the street with a machete? Then the emotions can shift. So the point here is that one of the ways to change your appraisal is to change your attention.
DUBNER: You bring up Grant’s perspective and why on earth he didn’t feel angry about this incident when many of us might have. We reached out to Grant to get some follow up information because this was a fairly unusual email for sure. And so, I’d like to read you some of his response. He was very candid in his answers. So first of all, he wrote, it was actually his bachelor party. “So, fortunately,” he writes , “I was a little inebriated.” I’m not sure how fortunate that is necessarily, but okay. He said, “At the time, I don’t think I quite grasped the severity of the injuries or the impact on those around me. My family had traveled hours to be by my side.” Then he writes, “But when I realized having seen pictures and videos of the event that I was genuinely lucky to be alive.” He wrote, “It’s a Rambo knife or machete that they used. I found out after waking up that I was number five of seven that were robbed by the same group. Only two of us were actually harmed. The rest, threatened. The other guy — turned out he was cut in the face and blinded in one eye. It made my severed tricep/elbow feel inconsequential, relatively.” And then we asked him how he felt about it as time went on a little bit. And he wrote, “The support I had from friends and family was unbelievable. I continued to feel lucky I had them and lucky I wasn’t worse like the other victim.” He says, “I just contextualized that there’s always someone worse off than me.” What interested me about that response, Angela, is we’ve talked about comparison being the thief of joy and so on. That’s a case where comparison was actually beneficial for him.
DUCKWORTH: Yeah. I don’t know what the opposite of a thief is, but yes.
DUBNER: And then he writes, “The police did catch the two guys,” meaning the bad guys, “who both pled guilty, but due to the court system, which I don’t fully understand, they’re still awaiting sentencing.” Now, here’s what’s really interesting to me, this next bit I’m about to read you. He’s essentially trying to understand the perpetrator’s anger. He wrote, “Both culprits had records. One was actually on probation. They both had family attending the sentencing. I don’t know why, but I assumed they wouldn’t. I assumed they were lost souls, but they had people waiting for them. I realized through online searching, one of them had a father who was an armed robber. I don’t know if that made me rationalize it, that it was nature, or it made me realize how powerful love is that people stand by family even knowing they committed evil crimes.” And then he writes, “My biggest takeaway is that life is complicated.” So what do you say to that processing system that Grant just walked us through?
DUCKWORTH: What a guy. I’m so impressed by this. There is a lot to say here about the appraisal box and perhaps how it can explain why his response is not anger, but really gratitude. And by the way, there’s research that gratitude and anger are like oil and water. They are not compatible. And that gratitude displaces anger. And actually, some would argue that it is a positive approach motivation because it does get you to do things. When you’re grateful, in contrast to anger, where you want to reciprocate by harming you because you harmed me, gratitude is: “You gave me something. Oh, now, I want to give you something.” So the appraisal of gratitude is feeling like you have gotten something from somebody else and, in particular, it’s not tit for tat. So for example, if I pay you back, you know, like, “Hey, I lent you $10. Venmo me $10.” You receive the $10, and you’re like, “Great, thanks for paying me back.” But you don’t feel this like upswelling of gratitude. But if somebody goes out of their way, over and beyond, that’s where we experience gratitude. So I’m thinking that what Grant was doing — whether it was a conscious desire to reappraise because he didn’t want to feel anger or just that it happened spontaneously — is that his attention went to things that were good, like, “Oh my gosh, it could have been worse.” But also the other way that you can reappraise, and this is why I can divide this box of appraisal into two, is just your evaluation of the things that you are paying attention to.
DUBNER: I do think about forgiveness as sort of the opposite of anger, at least a treatment of anger. And it does make me think of that old quote. I don’t know who said it, but it’s something about how holding on to your anger is like drinking poison and hoping that someone else will die. You’ve got this strong feeling and you somehow contort your mind into thinking that you’re sending out bad juju to somebody else. And in fact, it’s really all about you. I did a little bit of reading on the history of the philosophy of anger, and there’s a lot of divergence. The University of Chicago philosophy professor Agnes Callard wrote a piece in The Boston Review. This was an entire issue of The Boston Review about anger. And Callard writes, “In one corner, we have those who think that we would have a morally better world if we could eradicate anger entirely. This tradition has its roots in ancient stoicism and Buddhism. In the other corner of the debate stand those who conceive of anger, up to a point, as an essential and valuable part of one’s moral repertoire. Anger is what sensitizes us to injustice and motivates us to uphold justice.” I think of, Angela, another saying: “If you’re not angry, you’re not paying attention.”
DUCKWORTH: Is there a saying that — “If you’re not angry, you’re not paying attention”?
DUBNER: Yeah. I don’t know when that happened. It sounds like probably from the 1960s.
DUCKWORTH: Oh, societally.
DUBNER: Yeah, if you’re not ticked off about the things that people are doing that are plainly bad, then you’re not paying attention — or even worse, you’re paying attention, and you choose to ignore it. I think it’s easy to dismiss someone in saying, “Oh, they’re just angry.” I don’t think anyone is ever a quote, “just angry.” It’s a combination volcano and tip of the iceberg. It’s a volcano that you only see the tippity top. And unless you know what’s going on underneath, you’re going to do yourself a real disservice.
DUCKWORTH: Anytime you experience something yourself like anger, sadness, anxiety, joy, or you see somebody else experience any of those emotions — or you see somebody do something like pull out a machete or try to make a turkey sandwich or throw the sandwich around the room, what I can see is the third box. But then you should always ask, “What is the second box? What is the appraisal that led them to feel that way, that led them to do that thing?” And then you could ask, “Okay, what are the objective circumstances? What is in the first box?” And this is where James and I have been going in our own collaborative research. We’re wondering whether we should like tell the world about these three boxes and would that be, in a way, not an alternative to therapy, but the number of people who need therapy and the number of people who could potentially, possibly get it just given the number of therapists, it’s so asymmetric. So we’re sort of wondering whether three box theory training could be in some ways universal.
DUBNER: I would also love to hear from our listeners on this topic, about something that made you angry, what you did about it, and how it worked out. Record a voice memo on your phone. Do it in a nice, quiet place. Speak directly into the little microphone at the bottom of your phone. And then send us the file to NSQ@Freakonomics.com and maybe we will play it on a future show. So, Angela, first of all, I just want to say to Grant, I appreciate your sharing your story. I hope very much you continue to heal. And I appreciate how much you’ve really taught us through this assessment of this terrible incident and how you feel about it. I have to admit, I’ve always had an aversion to angry people. I don’t like to be around anger generally. But after having this conversation, even though you came in guns blazing about the negativity of anger, I’m not so sure it’s wise or fair to dismiss anger as so monolithically negative.
DUCKWORTH: I’m going to violently agree. And I just want to add this last note about anger. When people ask the question like, who is that person who yells back, who strikes back, etc.? It’s not just that you experience this negative approach emotion of anger; it’s also linked to impulsivity in the sense of like inability to control your impulses. And again, full confession, when I’m in a moment of anger with a loved one, which is unfortunately where it usually happens, I never feel like, I should be more self-controlled right now. I should use my prefrontal cortex. I never feel that. It’s only in retrospect. If you can experience all these things — you know, a sense of indignation, a sense of injustice, a desire to do something and change the world for the better — without the impulsivity, then I think you got it. That’s the kind of anger we want.
DUBNER: You know, Grant said it. His biggest takeaway is “life is complicated.” And as one more piece of evidence, as if we needed it, hearing you talk today, I would note that one complication is what I might call the sandwich paradox. We’ve spoken in the past in praise of the sandwich for satisfying one’s hunger so that one doesn’t act so impulsively. Today though, you told us a story about how the sandwich was kind of the engine of your impulsivity and anger. And so the sandwich — previously praised as blameless, as faultless, as nothing but positive — has turned out to have a dark side that we saw today. And I would posit that the sandwich paradox illustrates for all of us that even anger is as multivariate as anything can be and that it’s worthy of a lot of assessment. So Angela, thanks for hanging there.
DUCKWORTH: It was a pleasure, Stephen. I guess the moral of the story is that like sandwiches and emotions, life is indeed complicated.
This episode of No Stupid Questions was produced by me, Katherine Moncure, with our production associate, Lyric Bowditch. And now, here’s a fact-check of today’s conversation. Early in the conversation, Angela says that she generally scores higher on “wrath” than any other sin. But, when she most recently took the Seven Deadly Sins survey, she actually scored highest on “pride.”
That’s it for the fact-check. An update: since this episode was recorded, Grant’s attackers were sentenced to prison. One received a sentence of 12 years and nine months; the other was sentenced to 13 years and six months.
Before we wrap today’s show, let’s hear some of your thoughts about last week’s episode on the decline of sex:
Phil RINEHART: Hi, this is Phil Rinehart from Cambridge, MA. I always assumed that the reason, sexual frequency may have declined over the last 20 years is simply that people are under stress, they’re under economic stress, and it’s hard to have sex when you’re working harder and you’re tired and you’re worried about your family finances, as simple as that. Thanks.
Dana MORAND: H i Angela and Stephen. This is Dana from New Jersey. One of the things I don’t think you addressed was the equality of men and women. As women’s rights, protections and voices have become more respected, we now have more of a choice over our bodies and our actions, whereas before, it may have been viewed as a duty to have sex rather than something that was pleasurable for the woman. Perhaps this also affects men’s points of view towards intimacy and sex because no longer are women expected to just please men. Men are expected in a lot of cases to also please their partners. And maybe rather than just a declining over time in a negative way, maybe it’s just a rebalancing.
ANONYMOUS: There’s no one reason why people are having less sex these days. However, I do think it comes down to a couple of things specifically for people who are single and people who are dating. These include a loss of community in dating, say, over the past decade, we have fewer chances to meet people through friends and regular connections, and so there’s less trust and accountability in the connections we do make because these are basically complete strangers online. So women have to routinely let their friends know where and who they are on a date with if they meet off an app, so that they don’t run that risk of getting hurt or killed without having someone to check on them. That kind of kills the mood to be honest. And finally, women are just reckoning a lot these days with their past negative sexual experiences and taking their sweet, healthy time to return to putting themselves in a vulnerable situation like sex and basically just choosing to go pursue positive connections and go without sex if it’s not a good enough option.
That was, respectively: Phil Rinehart, Dana Morand, and a listener who asked that we not use her name. Thanks so much to them and to everyone who sent us their thoughts. And remember, we’d still love to hear about a time when something made you angry and how you responded. Send a voice memo to NSQ@Freakonomics.com. Let us know your name and whether you’d like to remain anonymous. You might hear your voice on the show!
Coming up next week on No Stupid Questions: Stephen and Angela discuss whether or not our society is built on envy:
DUBNER: Oh, bringing together our two favorite things, social media and high school reunions.
That’s next week on No Stupid Questions.
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No Stupid Questions is part of the Freakonomics Radio Network, which also includes Freakonomics Radio, People I (Mostly) Admire, and Freakonomics, M.D. All our shows are produced by Stitcher and Renbud Radio. This episode was mixed by Eleanor Osborne, with help from Jeremy Johnston. We had research help from Joseph Fridman and Dan Moritz-Rabson. Our executive team is Neal Carruth, Gabriel Roth, and Stephen Dubner. Our theme song is “And She Was” by Talking Heads — special thanks to David Byrne and Warner Chappell Music. If you’d like to listen to the show ad-free, subscribe to Stitcher Premium. You can follow us on Twitter @NSQ_Show and on Facebook @NSQShow. If you have a question for a future episode, please email it to email@example.com. To learn more, or to read episode transcripts, visit Freakonomics.com/NSQ. Thanks for listening!
DUBNER: Far be it from me to disagree with you —
DUCKWORTH: No, you can be Stephen.
DUBNER: Is that just what I am? I’m a disagreeable person.
- Seven Deadly Sins Survey, by No Stupid Questions (2023).
- “The Philosophy of Anger,” by Agnes Callard (Boston Review, 2020).
- “Anger and Its Cousins,” by Maria Miceli and Cristiano Castelfranchi (Emotion Review, 2017).
- “The Extended Process Model of Emotion Regulation: Elaborations, Applications, and Future Directions,” by James Gross (Psychological Inquiry, 2015).
- “Positive Affect Negative Affect Scale (PANAS),” by Vincent Tran (Encyclopedia of Behavioral Medicine, 2013).
- “Emotion Generation and Emotion Regulation: One or Two Depends on Your Point of View,” by James Gross and Lisa Feldman Barrett (Emotion Review, 2011).
- “Cargo Cult Science,” by Richard Feynman (California Institute of Technology commencement address, 1974).
- “Should You Try to Be Less Angry?” by No Stupid Questions (2022).
- “How Can We Break Our Addiction to Contempt?” by Freakonomics Radio (2021).
- “How Can You Stop Feeling So Irritable?” by No Stupid Questions (2021).
- “What Is the Optimal Way to Be Angry?” by No Stupid Questions (2020).
- Seven Deadly Sins, series by No Stupid Questions.