Counting to 10 when you’re feeling angry could actually make things worse.
Tests on students in a stressful situation found that taking time to “focus” on a situation actually makes people MORE angry.
“The worst thing to do in an anger-inducing situation is what people normally do: try to focus on their hurt and angry feelings to understand them,” said Brad Bushman, professor of communication and psychology at Ohio State University.
“If you focus too much on how you’re feeling, it usually backfires,” Bushman said.
“It keeps the aggressive thoughts and feelings active in your mind, which makes it more likely that you’ll act aggressively.”
Instead, Bushman found after tests where students were “stressed out” by being interrupted rudely by an intercom, the best thing you can do is imagine you are far away.
People should think about their problems – but from a “fly on the wall” perspective.
Researchers call this strategy “self-distancing”. It’s more effective even than other techniques such as thinking of something calming to take the mind off their anger.
Dominik Mischkowski, lead author of the research and a graduate student in psychology at Ohio State University, says this may be effective in the short-term, but the anger will return when the distraction is not there.
“But self-distancing really works, even right after a provocation – it is a powerful intervention tool that anyone can use when they’re angry.”
In one study, college students responded less aggressively and showed less anger when they were told to analyse their feelings from a self-distanced perspective.
“The secret is to not get immersed in your own anger and, instead, to have a more detached view,” said Mischkowski.
“You have to see yourself in this stressful situation as a fly on the wall would see it.”
There were two related studies. The first involved 94 college students who were told they were participating in a study about the effects of music on problem-solving, creativity and emotions.
The students listened to an intense piece of classical music while attempting to solve 14 difficult anagrams (rearranging a group of letters to form a word such as “pandemonium”).
They had only seven seconds to solve each anagram, record their answer and communicate it to the experimenter over an intercom.
But the plan of the study was to provoke the students into anger, which the experimenters did using a technique which has been used many times in similar studies.
The experimenter interrupted the study participants several times to ask them to speak louder into the intercom, finally saying “Look, this is the third time I have to say this! Can’t you follow directions? Speak louder!”
Results showed that students who used the self-distancing perspective had fewer aggressive thoughts and felt less angry than those who used the self-immersed approach and those in the control group.
“Many people seem to believe that immersing themselves in their anger has a cathartic effect, but it doesn’t. It backfires and makes people more aggressive,” Bushman said. – Daily Mail