Anger Can Help You Meet Your Goals


You may be having a perfectly ordinary day when suddenly you see an upsetting news story and feel overwhelmed by fury. Or you’re trying to have a calm conversation about an important issue and abruptly find yourself crying. These moments can make people feel out of control, and the emotions involved can feel bad or uncomfortable in themselves.

That gives negative emotions a bad reputation: they’re often seen as dangerous or destructive. People try to avoid them, suppress them or ignore them. But research reveals that negative emotions are useful for people and important for a successful and satisfying life. Negative emotions are sets of organized responses that occur when something people care about is not going well, and, psychologists have found, those responses can help people improve their situation.

In a recent series of studies, my colleagues and I tested this idea for the case of anger. Past work had shown that people feel angry when they confront an obstacle or a challenge to goals—for instance, a computer that crashes repeatedly while a person is trying to complete a project. Sometimes the obstacle is another person, who might challenge progress through resistance or injustice, such as a boss who does not give a deserved pay raise. In these situations, people get mad. A host of changes occur across physiology, cognition and behavior when we’re angry: the emotion alters our body, our thinking and the actions we are likely to take.

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We wondered: Could anger and its accompanying transformations help people do better in situations that involve obstacles or challenges?

We designed a series of experiments with more than 1,000 participants. In most of the scenarios we used, people first completed a task designed to make them angry, such as viewing insulting images or tackling a frustrating computer assignment. In comparison, other participants did tasks that made them feel neutral or some emotion other than anger. For instance, images of household items evoked no specific emotions, whereas images of people crying elicited sadness. Afterward, all participants completed separate tasks that involved a clear goal, along with a challenge to that goal, such as solving a tricky anagram or playing a difficult game.

Repeatedly we found that people who got mad first were more successful than the other participants in the challenges that followed. Angry people persisted longer and did better at solving word problems, for instance. They also scored better on a challenging video game and were more likely to sign a petition to stop student tuition increases. We also considered a real-world case by looking at survey data collected from 989 people during the 2016 and 2020 U.S. general elections. We found that a person’s anger at an opposing candidate’s potential win predicted greater likelihood that a person would vote in the next election.

Across our studies, anger helped achieve challenging goals. When the goals were not challenging, getting angry did not improve outcomes. For example, when participants had to solve easy word puzzles or play a simple video game that involved making a single jump, participants who were angry fared no better than those in other conditions.

But what does this mean for people’s life? Here the story becomes more complicated. The findings do not mean that everyone should get riled up in order to achieve their goals. But anger clearly can be useful in overcoming obstacles.

Part of the challenge with learning from our emotions is that they are not directional—that is, they do not necessarily push us toward a specific type of action to resolve a situation. We designed our experimental studies to have a clear goal with only a singular action or choice involved (such as persist or give up). Life is typically much more complicated, and people have many actions to choose from. Some of those options can have serious negative consequences.

Rage at a crashing computer could motivate someone to take it to a repair shop. But it could also motivate them to smash the computer on the floor. Both actions have removed the obstacle: the crashing computer. Yet only one is truly beneficial in completing the larger project—whatever the person was doing on the computer. This complication in using our negative emotions contributes to their bad reputation. Anger can lead people to do things they would rather not do that don’t match their long-term goals.

Indeed, in one of our experiments, we found that angry people were more likely to cheat when given the chance than other study participants. Cheating gave those players an edge, but it’s also unethical. As another example, past research has found that expressing anger can make others concede and give in to demands. Although using this intense emotion to fuel an impassioned, persuasive argument could be beneficial, if a person who gets upset ends up bullying others, this will ultimately have negative repercussions for their relationships.

Fortunately, there is a lot of research on how to improve responses to emotions that can guide us with our anger as well. Because this powerful emotion is a signal that we have encountered a challenge to a goal we care about, the best response is to stop, orient to what’s happening and consider the best way to respond to achieve the desired outcome.

Ask yourself: What is my goal? Then choose actions that align with it. In an argument with a romantic partner, if your long-term aim is to improve the relationship, anger can motivate appropriate next steps, including expressing your needs, working to a compromise and listening. But if the goal that drives you is to prove your point in the argument, you may speak louder, ignore your partner’s perspective and act aggressively. Taking a moment to check on one’s immediate and long-term aims can help prevent detrimental responses and prompt better ones.

Negative emotions aren’t bad. They are incredibly important indicators that significant events are taking place. So the next time one happens, don’t push it away—pay attention.

Are you a scientist who specializes in neuroscience, cognitive science or psychology? And have you read a recent peer-reviewed paper that you would like to write about for Mind Matters? Please send suggestions to Scientific American’s Mind Matters editor Daisy Yuhas at

This is an opinion and analysis article, and the views expressed by the author or authors are not necessarily those of Scientific American.


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