The phenomenon of ‘displaced aggression’ helps explain why your accumulated anger during the pandemic can spill out into real-world interactions
Anger is an animal without a cage. Once provoked, it can lash out at anyone within reach of its claws. This was true before Covid-19. The man pissed about his job picks a fight with his spouse, or the woman annoyed by a friend loses her temper with her kids.
But if science had an instrument capable of measuring anger, the pandemic and its many challenges would be pushing its needle into the red. All this accumulated rage is certainly spilling out into real-world interactions. The evidence for this is all over the news. Outlets across the country have reported cases of “retail rage” during which store employees who try to enforce rules regarding masks or social distancing have been spit on or otherwise assaulted.
And it’s a certainty that the current moment’s frustrations are causing a surge in angry exchanges among friends, couples, and families.
This roaming, unfocused aspect of anger is sometimes referred to as “displaced aggression,” which psychologists define as “retaliatory aggression that is misdirected from an initial source of provocation and turned instead upon an innocent other.” At a moment when tempers are running hot, it’s helpful to recognize the threat of displaced aggression — in society, and in ourselves.
“There are basically two reasons why people displace aggression onto others,” says Brad Bushman, PhD, a professor of communication at Ohio State University who studies anger and aggression. “One is that the target of their anger is not available — like if a person is pissed off at a politician.” There’s no way to calculate just how many spousal spats or unfortunate parent-child interactions today’s politics have caused, but the number is surely staggering. “The other reason,” he says, “is that the target is available, but the angry person fears reprisal or retaliation.” For example, yelling at a boss is likely to have negative professional repercussions. Yelling at a partner is safer.
Bushman points out that aggression comes naturally to most people. “You don’t have to teach children to be aggressive, that comes very easily,” he says. “You need to teach them self-control, and not to shout, scream, yell, kick, or hit when they’re frustrated.”
“If you think of anger like a fire, there’s a lot of fuel for that right now. Social media and the news provide a lot of that fuel.”
Anger’s strange appeal
Considering anger’s promiscuity when choosing targets, one would think that people would try to avoid angering themselves for fear of misdirecting their fury or causing their relationships some avoidable strife. But anger is oddly intoxicating. “There’s an adage in the world of the internet and Google and Big Data — enragement is engagement,” says Piers Steel, PhD, a psychologist, behavioral scientist, and professor at the University of Calgary. “Creating outrage is a great way to keep people watching or clicking.”
Steel says that this formula is deployed again and again in cable and online news content, and also in the algorithms that govern many popular social media platforms. “You see everyone being fed back their own viewpoints in a more extreme fashion — your beliefs are confirmed, and you’re told that other people are so stupid because they can’t understand it — and so there’s basically this firehose of anger being sprayed over society,” he explains. “And 100%, this anger will bleed out into our lives.”
Another challenging element of anger is its propensity to group people together in ways that may justify acts of displaced aggression. “We tend to blame all members of a group if one member does something bad,” says Eduardo Vasquez, PhD, a senior lecturer and displaced-aggression researcher at the University of Kent in the U.K.
While people often view members of their own group — for example, the members of their own political party — as a diverse mix, members of the competing group are often viewed as more or less “interchangeable,” he says. “So if you encounter somebody who is a member of an out-group or somehow related to it, then at some level your system generalizes the anger to include that individual.”
This may help explain why retail workers are bearing the brunt of some people’s Covid-19 fury. For the person who disagrees with social-distancing protocols, those charged with enforcing them may seem of a piece with the public officials who put those protocols in place.
Keeping anger in its cage
The big takeaway here is that anger breeds anger, and accumulated fury tends to lash out at whatever target is convenient. As the old saying goes, to a man with a hammer, everything is a nail.
How can people put down the hammer of anger — or avoid picking it up in the first place? Ohio State’s Bushman says avoiding things that tend to make you angry is the obvious remedy.
During Covid-19, that may mean limiting the time you spend reading or watching the news, or staying away from online content or platforms that tend to leave you hot and bothered. “If you think of anger like a fire, there’s a lot of fuel for that right now,” he says. “Social media and the news provide a lot of that fuel.”
The sooner you can nip anger in the bud, the better. Rumination — basically, thinking about or replaying in your mind the thing that made you angry — tends to turn anger up to 11. “Rumination is the worst thing you can do,” Bushman says.
On the other hand, spending time in nature is an effective way to reduce angry feelings and emotions, he says. Humor — whether it’s a funny video on YouTube or texting with friends who make you laugh — also tends to quickly snuff out the flames of anger.
A little empathy doesn’t hurt either. A 2017 study in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology found that people can, with effort, put themselves in someone else’s shoes and gain a better understanding of their viewpoints. Unfortunately, many are unwilling to make this effort even when it would lead them toward more positive emotions, according to research from the American Psychological Association. Again, anger is oddly intoxicating; turning away from it requires strength.
“Anything you can do that’s incompatible with anger or aggression is helpful,” Bushman says.