THE BLOG
09/30/2014 10:15 am ET Updated Nov 30, 2014

The 80/20 View of Anger

In the Stone Age, anger was essential for survival -- fight or flight. Today, we have the same genetic makeup but for most of us anger does more harm than good. Can the 80/20 principle help us decide what to do about anger?

There are two 80/20 axioms that may help. One is that 20 percent of our anger -- or much less -- gives us 80 percent, maybe more, of the benefit from anger. In fact, since anger can do so much harm to our minds and relationships, it may have huge negative value.

The other axiom is that if that only a small proportion of our anger helps rather than hurts us, we need to work out the minority of cases where that is so. When is it useful to vent our anger, and when should we manage it and dissipate it?

When does anger help us?

Here are four cases:

• There are "Stone Age" situations where there is imminent danger and anger revs up our ability to fight back. Just as a cat arches its back and expands its tail when faced with a dog, anger can make us appear bigger and fiercer, and deter aggression.

• In less extreme circumstances, anger in conversation can communicate the depth of our feeling about an issue, which may not be perceived by the other party. Anger can therefore cause a rapid reassessment of an issue, which may therefore help communication. Anger is usually more effective if it is short and sharp, and then quickly retracted, so as not to risk a downward spiral. I have seen anger of this kind occasionally be helpful in leading to a breakthrough in stalled negotiations and relationships. Sometimes anger is even deliberately fabricated by a skilled negotiator -- it is an effective tactic, because it raises the stakes on a particular issue and focuses attention there.

• When someone is normally mild and polite is faced with an obtuse and casually rude person, anger can be useful in cutting through social niceties. Here, too, the stakes are raised. The message is clear -- treat me better, or go to hell. A flash of anger can save a lot of time and frustration. This only works to your advantage, though, when you really don't care if the relationship is terminated or not.

• Finally, anger is the great engine of social improvement. If you get angry at needless suffering, discrimination, or unfairness of any kind, anger motivates you to do something about it. Righteous anger ended slavery, child labor, and many other social ills.

When does anger hurt us?

Most of the time -- when those four conditions above don't apply.

Anger is most destructive when:

• Deployed against someone we love or care about -- which is frequently the case

• When it is based on a misunderstanding. Very often, we misread the signals and interpret a badly expressed sentiment or a careful action as containing aggression which it does not. An alternative to anger is to smile, and say "you sound as if you are saying..." where "..." is something quite extreme, a clear caricature of anything said or meant. The more extreme you make it, with a smile, the more chance that the other party will laugh or back down. For example, if a good friend says to me, "You were really off-form last night," I might say, "Do you think I should stop going out in public?"

• When we wallow in anger. I can think of instances where I have not expressed anger, but brooded on the action leading to my anger, and thought up ever more extreme possible ways of retaliating. This is a sure way to make ourselves increasingly miserable and unbalanced.

Ways to Deflect Anger

• Pause. Put emotion on ice. Think and investigate. Was this really as aggressive as I imagined? Does it fall in one of the four cases where anger may be useful to me? The very act of pausing makes it easier to retain control. Not to be recommended, though, when facing a sabre-toothed tiger. But it expands our repertoire of possible responses -- we can express anger, or we can refrain from expressing anger.

• Calculate. The 80/20 principle, and observation of what is in our self-interest, suggest that we should mainly do the latter. A rule of thumb is to give way to anger only one or two times out ten that we feel anger. The default option, therefore, should be not to express anger. At first this is hard. It becomes easier with practice.

• Remember -- there is a flaw in our programming. We are not one of the Flintstones. Anger is mainly a prehistoric hangover. Let us be thankful we live in the modern world, where there is much less frequent danger. In the Stone Age, people who got angry lived longer. Today, people who stay calm tend to live longer.

The third 80/20 hypothesis -- anger is person-specific

I said there were two axioms, but I wanted to save this one for last. It's not so much an axiom as a hypothesis -- think if it is true for you.

• 80 percent of the time we get angry, it's with 20 percent (or far fewer) of the people we spend time with. In other words, anger is not random and balanced. It is skewed and person-specific. There are certain people who "make us angry," which is another way of saying there are certain people we are disposed to be angry about.

If this is true for you, make a list of your top five "anger prompters."

Now, you can do nothing with this information. Or you can do something about it.

One thing you could do is to follow my dictum about snakes. I once wrote that if you are scared of snakes, you shouldn't go on a course to make you less afraid. Simply avoid the jungle -- or the pet shop. Similarly, if someone makes you angry, you can go to huge lengths to overcome this anger, but it may be more economical to stop seeing them. If your boss makes you angry, find another one. If the woman next door brings you out in hives, stop talking to her. And so on.

But this is only a good idea if the person who makes you angry isn't important in your life. If they are, don't wait until the next time you get angry. Face the issue and try to resolve it. Do it when you are floating on air and feeling at your most generous and expansive. Resolving the issue, one way or another, will be hard. But it is essential for your happiness.

Anger, like pain, can be instructive. But, like pain, you can have too much of a bad thing. Only a small proportion of anger is useful. When it comes to anger, most of us really are our own worst enemies.

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