Trying to do something really hard today? Had an unpleasant exchange with your boss about it and feeling a little angry?Good, according to a new study.
Researchers at Texas A&M University recently conducted a series of experiments after triggering students into a state of anger as well as others including amusement and desire.
The angry volunteers — riled up by images insulting the university’s football team, for instance — outperformed when it came to achieving a goal, at least a challenging one. The experiments included word puzzles, video games and tasks that could lead to, say, someone winning a prize or protecting money.
“This study suggests that anger can be helpful,” says Heather Lench, its lead author and the director of the university’s emotion science lab. “It’s not that anger is always going to be helpful to you or beneficial. It just means that anger can help you get your goals. It really matters a lot what your goal is.”
Lench’s aim is to help societies realize that all emotions are useful. Consider, for instance, the common view that we should always strive to be happy. In fact, research shows that people achieve greater life satisfaction and better performance if they experience a mix of emotions. That’s an important message for societies where girls are often discouraged from expressing anger.
Anger is potentially “a motivating and powerful emotion,” Lench says, even though its effects can sometimes be problematic. She found, for instance, that angry people resorted to cheating more to get ahead.
Lench found her psychology calling after getting repeatedly frustrated — perhaps angry — at the feedback of English professors who told her to stop trying to question what the authors of classic texts were really trying to convey. There’s a long history of established thought on this subject, she often heard. With psychology, she felt free to ask all sorts of questions and seek out answers.
“I became more and more convinced that almost everything people do is about their emotions,” she says.
Lench subscribes to the belief that emotions are functional and can improve people’s outcomes. It may have started with simpler lifeforms that developed positive and negative impulses toward and away from things. Through evolution, more complex experiences like fear, anger, sadness, happiness and awe developed. As humans came to consider their environment and social interactions, those who could link the motivations of emotion to their goals held an advantage.
Lench is still fascinated by anger, but her experimental psychology lab recently moved onto another promising field: boredom.
She has begun the lab work of making some people bored and others not, then putting them in various situations. An early finding? Bored people are more likely to seek out novelty — and not always for the best.
“It’s almost as if people are saying that they’d rather feel bad than feel nothing at all,” she says. —Tim Loh