Saturday, January 05, 2008

Anger vs. Fear

Entry for 3 January 2008:

An important discussion that Conal and I had this time was an exploration of our views on emotion, especially anger. This had been the point over which we had our argument back around the time of our dad’s death, so it felt important to try to have this discussion in a more open, constructive manner. As a computer scientist, Conal values clarity highly, and so he raised some really interesting and useful questions about Process-Experiential Emotion Theory.

In particular, what distinguishes anger from fear, given that both are responses to danger or threat? This is part of a position on his part that anger is not a natural emotion, but always involves cultural programming, but as we talked it became clear that we were using the word “anger” differently, and that what he calls anger corresponds roughly to what I call maladaptive and secondary reactive anger.

But what does distinguish anger from fear? With anger, I would say that the danger is of a particular kind such that taking a stand against the threat would be useful (likely to have a successful outcome). Generally this means that the threat is another person who is not so much bigger and stronger than I am that I would get killed if I stood up to them. This means that anger is more interpersonal, social, territorial. With fear, the danger is going to be of a more overwhelming or overpowering kind; that is, resistance would only increase the danger. Large, natural forces like forest fires (to cite an example relevant to Murray Creek), bears or attacking armies are more likely to engender fear. But it also means that primary fear and primary anger are often going to co-occur, even if the person only acts on one of the two.

This is actually a critical distinction for the emotion system to be able to make; survival will be enhanced if there is a rapid, efficient means for distinguishing between and appropriately mobilizing toward (a) threats that need to be managed by firmly standing one’s ground and perhaps yelling and shaking a stick and (b) threats that need to be escaped from or avoided by hiding or not attracting attention to oneself.

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