October 13, 2021

We think anger is a powerful force for change

by: Leigh Baker

One key characteristic of our Inconvenient Species is our habit of using anger and blame to try and generate change around climate change.

This isn't surprising. Read a majority of many "mainstream" articles about anger, and you could be forgiven for thinking that anger is a useful force for change.

However, there's NOT a lot of actual, scientific evidence that supports this view. While our anger response is instinctive, it's actually hasn't been particularly useful for centuries in producing long term, sustainable, positive results.

"The ancient instinct to lash out when angry has evolved because on the wild and dangerous savanna where early man lived in small cliquey societies , a vengeful reputation may have been an advantage."

The Anger Fallacy, p. 70

We don't live as tribal hunter-gathers any more. Leading anger researchers today are validating what philosophers from both eastern and western cultures have taught for centuries: anger is NOT useful for achieving anything much that's positive and sustainable over time.

Feeling angry is one thing - it's part of being human. Faced with the cumulative human irrationalities that have resulted in global warming and climate change, feeling angry (and scared and sad and resentful) is pretty much inevitable.

BUT can you effectively use anger as a tool for creating positive, long lasting change in the world? That's where the evidence is lacking.

And there are things you could well miss out on if you're angry all the time...

Anger is the HARD way to do change...

There has been a lot written about "channeling anger" - but it isn't backed up by the research.

What anger motivates in the long term is victimhood and vengefulness - NOT learning, cooperation and sustainable, supported change.

There is no actual evidence that anger is useful in generating long term, positive change. Its processing costs outweigh its supposed "motivating power".

Yes, you will be angry - you are human, after all.

BUT once you understand the reason why you're angry is it helpful to STAY angry?

Anger compromises your problem-solving ability

What evidence there is suggests that the processing costs are pretty high....

The state of anger compromises your thinking in a few ways :
• It makes your thinking rigid and automatic .
• It distracts you and clogs up your random - access memory ( RAM ) .
• It makes you fixated on external change .

The Anger Fallacy, p. 72

Neuroeconomists tell us that - since we are organic beings - we have a limited amount of processing capability. Anger uses up your time, energy and problem-solving space - and then wastes it as you stay angry and become angrier. Being angry fixates you ON being angry - when you could be solving problems instead

When you express anger , what you actually do is rehearse it , rehash it , go over it , remind yourself of all the details of what’s making you angry . This works you up . As you hear yourself advocate and proselytise , you tend to mount arguments , which simply reinforce what you already thought .

The Anger Fallacy, p. 17

Anger puts you in victim mode

When you're angry, you play the blame, shame and guilt game. That's an been an ongoing feature of human behaviour for centuries (and one leveraged extensively by social media in recent times).

But think about the last time that someone tried to motivate YOU by blaming and shaming YOU. Did you respond by agreeing with them and quickly, enthusiastically taking on their issue and acting on it? Really?

Blaming is a strategy aimed at getting others to take the burden of emotional and real work; that is, it’s a way to get out of having to do stuff... It makes you reliant on other people doing stuff for you. It makes you soft, lazy and unskilled.

The Anger Fallacy, p. 94

Getting angry with other people and playing the blame game takes away YOUR power to be part of the wealth of solutions already happening in the world today. (Which means you could well be missing out on some great business and career opportunities.)

Anger creates resistance, dishonesty and payback

Even if your anger gets you acquiescence - will it get you the results that you want to the level that you want them?

... expressing anger to weaker or more desperate opponents may make them concede more (because your stance will seem tougher), but they will also be more likely to deceive or conceal , they will resent you , and they will be less inclined to renegotiate with you in the future ...
...expressing anger to more powerful opponents is always a bad idea : it will make them feel and express anger in return , and concede less ( or be less likely to settle a dispute )

The Anger Fallacy, p. 39

So if you're expecting that shouting at others is going to deliver the climate solutions you want, have another think.

Anger actually make change harder and the results less certain

Good leadership is defined as:

"Managers get people to do what needs to be done. Leaders get people to want to do what needs to be done."

Warren Bennis

It's plain hard work using anger as an approach - it means you're pushing people to do something they don't care about or don't want to do.

...influencing another to do something is often magnitudes more work than problem-solving it yourself.

The Anger Fallacy, p. 94

And what are your chances of getting a result you will actually LIKE? When you push someone else to do something they don't want to do, mostly they do it:

  1. Reluctantly
  2. THEIR way, to THEIR standards and using THEIR priorities.

Overall, anger turns out to be a tiring, uncomfortable, unproductive way to create change.

What can you do if you move beyond anger?

The approach that has been summed up in Stoic Philosophy and Zen Buddhism to Psychology - and practiced by Seneca, Gandhi and Martin Luther King - suggests that there is nothing you can do with anger (once you understand its cause) that you couldn't do more effectively using more positive emotions to create sustainable change.

You can see "the machine"

A key enabler for moving beyond anger is to understand what we now know about how automatic human behaviour actually is. The emerging science tells us that our behaviour is mostly far more automatic than we would like to think.

The decisions we believe we’re making ‘ freely ’ are all in fact determined by a dense thicket of crisscrossing cogs and causes — biographical , physiological , cultural , psychological , neurological and environmental . They don’t come out of nowhere.
We are incredibly complex creatures , entwined in incredibly complex situations , which makes our choices often seem baffling and unpredictable ; but we are nonetheless , ultimately , biological machines that obey the laws of physics just like everything else.

The Anger Fallacy, p. 177

While it conflicts with 20th century ideas about "free will" and "choice" - this view of humans as actors in systems can make our intervention plans and strategies far more powerful.

If you're not angry, then you can get curious about the human systems in play and how you can leverage them for change.

You can work on new models that make the existing systems obsolete

“You never change things by fighting the existing reality. To change something, build a new model that makes the existing model obsolete.”

― Buckminster Fuller

The more you fight against the system, the more those in the system fight back.

The world's 10% (approximately) innovators and entrepreneurs have been building solutions for centuries. The first solar panels were installed in New York City in 1884 - and renewable energy is multiplying, sourced from sun, wind and waves. We have all the technology we need - the challenge is to use it.

If all your energy goes into fighting the status quo, how do you support (and benefit from) the renewable revolution? What opportunities DON'T you see because your Reticular Activating System is preoccupied with the problems of the status quo?

You can make time to learn and understand

You can study the wealth of commercial climate solutions we already have, and explore the smorgasbord of new jobs being created as those solutions are scaled.

You can study the systems causing the behaviour - the pressures, the beliefs, the culture, the motivators. You can learn about both the physical production systems doing harm AND the human social systems around them. You can explore everything from Systems Thinking for Social Change to Paul Hawken's Project Regeneration.

You can explore for leverage points that can create shifts in those systems - without having to wait for "belief" and "agreements" and a time when "everybody is on the same page".

(And if there's one top skill for progressing your career and growing your business success, it's the capability to innovate human systems.)

You can use your whole brain

If you're not using up valuable energy in rehashing anger, rehearsing your grievances and "shoulding" about what other people "ought" to be doing, then you can use your brain for problem-solving.

The most creative parts of your brain only operate when you're functioning well - you lose them when you're stressed, angry or anxious.

You can focus on solutions instead of blame and shame

You can still be an activist - but when you ditch the blame and shame, you can be an intelligent activist working to create paths forward.

You can follow Buckminster Fuller's advice, and be part of "building a new system that makes the old system obsolete"...

You could:

This post draws heavily on ideas from the 2013 book The Anger Fallacy, by clinical psychologist Steven Laurent cognitive behavioural therapist and researcher Ross G Menzies.

It has elegantly put in to words many of my concerns over years of listening to passionate, well-intentioned (but ill-informed) environmental activists - confirming that we need to become smarter communicators.

Defaulting to the anger/blame/shame/guilt emotions used so toxically by social media platforms is unlikely to deliver the future we want.

The book is published by Australian Academic Press - and is well worth adding to your change-making toolset.

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