Anger, revenge, and politics

Second-year Psychology students participating in the University Honours College follow a mini-course on Blogging Science (within the Thematic Meetings course), in which they learn to communicate science to the general public, by means of informing, giving an opinion, and relating issues in science to issues in society. This year a selection of these written blog posts is published on Mindwise. Today’s post is by Vladimir Bojarskich.

The purpose for anger?

Recently, I stumbled upon a blog post proclaiming that anger contaminates happiness and should, therefore, be eliminated [1]. Most of us would probably agree to this since angry people can act in destructive ways, hurting others and themselves. However, is there not a purpose for anger? If you have watched Pixar’s “Inside Out” you would probably agree that there is.  From an evolutionary perspective, emotions including anger evolved in order to increase our likelihood of surviving, and should therefore have some purpose for us [2]. If someone would steal your wallet, you would most certainly be angry at him or her. Anger may signal that something is not going the way you planned it, or it may signal you that you think you were unjustly treated, driving you towards obtaining equality again [3]. Thus, the feeling of anger itself might be very useful for the reason that it can enforce you to express discomfort when someone violates your boundaries.

On the other hand, anger has some unwanted side-effects including aggression and vengefulness. I believe that these side-effects are what gives anger its bad name. Continuing with the previous example, stealing your wallet would make you angry. What if the thief would run away before you can express your discomfort? It could lead to long-lasting feelings of anger and, indeed, contaminate one’s happiness [1]. Subsequently, one might even develop an urge to avenge oneself. With the hours passing by, you would soon realize that the perpetrator cannot be brought to justice. You still feel the anger and the need for revenge, but you would not know where to direct it at. Such aimless anger can then yield to displaced aggression and, if the initial target of aggression is not available, the sufferer might displace his anger towards people that are similar to the offender.

Displayed revenge

The emergence of the so-called displaced revenge can take different scales if one acknowledges that revenge is a goal-directed behavior [3]. Likewise, groups form because their members share similar characteristics (culture, ethnicity, gender, age, etc.) or a common goal. Thus, out of one person with the goal of revenge may evolve a motivated group that displaces its aggression towards another group. This vengeful group with similar characteristics could be a street gang, hooligans from a rival football team, or even make up an entire nation. The latter group would serve with detrimental effects of displaced revenge on international peace and cross-cultural coexistence. To support this claim, Washburn and Skitka [4] studied American’s attitudes towards a military response to the Syrian crisis in 2013. Surprisingly, merely reminding people of the events of 9/11 increased their willingness to launch a military response rather than a political. Thus, the reminder of 9/11 triggered a displaced aggression towards an unrelated target.

Currently, multiple nations are involved in the fighting in Syria. The events in Paris, Istanbul, and Brussel will long be remembered and people’s cravings for vengeance are understandable. The only wish I would like to express is that any anger or desire for revenge should not be displaced towards unrelated and uninvolved people. My appeal is to the political leaders who should restrain from misusing the anger, fear and grief of people to promote their political agenda, and to us citizens and voters that should restrain from scapegoating and, more importantly, should be mindful of our extremely valuable vote.

My appeal is to the political leaders who should restrain from misusing the anger, fear and grief of people to promote their political agenda, and to us citizens and voters that should restrain from scapegoating and, more importantly, should be mindful of our extremely valuable vote.

Most certainly, anger and revenge alone do not predict global conflict. In fact, their contribution might be very small and insignificant on a large scale. However, I argue that microscopic changes may lead to mesoscopic change, which in turn may cause macroscopic changes.  More specifically, you might find yourself in a discussion with a friend who believes that group-based retribution is justified, or you are struggling with the question whom you should vote for in the upcoming election – Donald Trump maybe? If you believe in the power of microscopic change, you can use your vote deliberately.

Relevant  links and publications

[1] Grieger, R. (2016, February 29). Ridding Happiness Contaminant 6: Anger. Don’t let resentment, bitterness, and indignation run you down. [Web log post]. Retrieved from

[2] Tooby, J. & Cosmides, L. (2008). The evolutionary psychology of the emotions and their relationship to internal regulatory variables. In M. Lewis, J. M. Haviland-Jones & L. F. Barrett (Eds.), Handbook of Emotions, 3rd Ed. (pp. 114-137.) NY: Guilford.

[3] Sjöström, A., & Gollwitzer, M. (2015). Displaced revenge: Can revenge taste ‘sweet’ if it aims at a different target? Journal Of Experimental Social Psychology, 56191-202. doi:10.1016/j.jesp.2014.09.016

[4] Washburn, A. N., & Skitka, L. J. (2015). Motivated and displaced revenge: Remembering 9/11 suppresses opposition to military intervention in Syria (for some). Analyses Of Social Issues And Public Policy (ASAP), 15(1), 89-104. doi:10.1111/asap.12062


NOTE: Image by SamahR, licenced under CC BY 2.0

Vladimir Bojarskich on Linkedin

Vladimir is a research master student in behavioural and social sciences at the University of Groningen. He is interested in the socio-psychological aspects of climate change mitigation, adaptation and environmental protection. Feel free to contact him for any feedback, or interest in collaboration, via

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