06/14/2010 05:12 am ET Updated Nov 17, 2011

Angry Americans Aren't Necessarily Better Americans

The fact that all of us are eminently capable of experiencing angry feelings is a given. What defines us, though, is how well or how poorly we manage that anger. Does the anger rise to the level of managing the impulse to do harm, or does it trigger the most primitive of thinking and action? Unfortunately, as we discover every day in the news, the most emotionally primitive among us make the world unsafe for all of us. Violence, and even just the threat of violence, forces us all to make concessions to would be perpetrators.

We abhor and fear the rise of the suicide bombings that now are a part of daily news reports. Like-minded would be bombers volunteer to kill others, despite the fact they have no specific target. They have only a philosophy of hate and rage that can best be satisfied when they trade their own life for the privilege of killing anyone who happens to be in that wrong place at the wrong time. Apparently, they consider it a fair price. How do people get stirred up into engaging in a level of violence that has no boundaries, no purpose beyond destruction? Can anyone be stirred up into becoming this hateful? Under what conditions?

One of the most robust of findings in the world of psychology concerns the relationship between frustration and anger. Frustration, typically defined as the blocking of an ongoing, goal-directed behavior, is a reliable pathway into anger. Stop somebody from getting what he or she wants, whether it's a better seat in a movie theater, a faster fast food, or help from the government, and anger can erupt in a microsecond, often in scary and unpredictable forms.

Anger, however, affects decision-making, often in the worst of ways. Angry people are more likely to take foolish risks. Angry people are more likely to rush in and say and do things that make matters worse. Angry people are more likely to hurt others, and themselves, in the heat of the moment. Angry people are more likely to lash out even when they don't know what the target is. Instead of people becoming better informed and aiming their anger at sensible targets with their votes and meaningful contributions of helping to educate others, they stir people up so that they get followers just as blindly rageful as they are. Appealing to people's sense of deserving more, their sense of entitlement, feeds the frustration and fuels the anger. Too often it appeals to the worst in us, giving us an excuse to erupt instead of think.

Instead of encouraging thoughtful action, we have political leaders who encourage the worst of responses in their followers. In the aftermath of the passing of health care reform, Sarah Palin, as one glaring example of aggression-mongering, told her followers it was time to "reload" and take aim at the targets she designated. Could anyone miss the metaphor for weapons and violence? Stirring people into an angry mob has never been difficult to do. Leading them to believe their anger is justified when they don't get their way is easy. Scaring people with misinformation and distortions of fact easily fans the flames of rage. Painting a broad target of "the government" as your enemy is easy. People who lack detailed understandings easily grasp bigger targets, thereby making "throw out everyone in government" an attractive motto.

Do you want to know why the anger level keeps rising in this country? Why more and more people scream at the top of their voices that "government is bad?" Emotion is contagious. Mood and outlook are contagious. When people are in an emotional state to begin with, the people around us play a huge role in influencing our quality of mood and action. When key Republicans and the Tea Party movement leaders make "government" the enemy and encourage their followers to wear their angry emotions on their sleeves and act their anger out on targets too global to be meaningful, they appeal to the worst in us. They ridicule President Obama as the "professor in chief" and mock his cerebral demeanor, yet at least in this one way, his is the model of anger management we should most be encouraging. Wouldn't it be better for all of us if our leaders encouraged their followers to set their anger aside long enough to think through what to constructively do with it? Wouldn't we better at problem solving if we didn't just stir up anger but instead stirred up thinking and the means to take sensible action?

John McCain said that the language of violence has always been the metaphor of politics when he defended his former vice-presidential pick after her advice to disgruntled Americans to "reload." But, in case Mr. McCain hasn't noticed, the world has changed and what were once merely metaphors of violence have become all too literally true. He and the other rage-mongerers need a new metaphor, one that encourages something of a higher nature in people, because angry Americans aren't necessarily better Americans, especially when it comes to making important decisions for the future of our country.