Conventional wisdom says to never go to bed angry with your partner. Also, don’t drive angry, send angry emails and definitely don’t post on the internet angry. But anger can help you, sometimes and in particular ways, at the office. It might even make you better at your job, suggests a new study that tested angry people in different emotional states performing tasks that required puzzle-solving and rapid-response skills.
The study, published in the latest issue of the Journal of Personality and Psychology, indicates that anger can help people accomplish challenging tasks more effectively than other emotions.
“Across studies, when people were angry, they did better at attaining their goal,” said lead author Heather Lench, a professor of psychological and brain sciences at Texas A&M University, who added that she definitely thinks this “is applicable to work.”
In one test, researchers asked study subjects to solve word puzzles after inducing an emotional state (anger, arousal, amusement, or sadness); the participants who were angry solved more puzzles than any of the others — and showed a nearly 40% improvement over those in the neutral condition. The effect was only apparent for challenging puzzles, however; there was no benefit to being angry in tests involving simple puzzles.
In other tests, angry study subjects were better at avoiding obstacles in a video game, because the anger shortened their reaction time. Elsewhere, participants who were told they would take a financial hit were more likely to try to prevent it if they were angry, such as by signing a petition, and participants outraged over the results of an election were more likely to vote in subsequent elections.
These findings align with one theory of anger, Lench explained.
“We feel angry when there’s a difference between what we want and what we have, and there’s an obstacle in our way,” she said. “The responses that are part of anger—physical arousal, higher attention—should help us resolve that discrepancy, and should help us get what we want.”
The bright side of anger
Lench’s findings add to a growing body of research showing that anger can sometimes have unexpected benefits. Getting angry feedback on an idea-generating task spurred participants to come up with more, and more creative, ideas, a 2010 study found. Older research has shown that showing visible anger in negotiations can pay off for the indignant party: Their counterpart is more willing to make concessions when facing someone who’s genuinely angry (but only real anger will work—study participants weren’t fooled when the angry party was faking it.)
Anger can be a powerful motivator, giving the push someone needs to change the status quo. It’s a signal from your body to act on something, U.K.-based life coach Natalie Trice told the newspaper Metro — whether that something is “Tina stealing your milk, John always being late for meetings, or Kate taking credit for your work.”
When director and animator Brad Bird joined Pixar, he specifically sought out frustrated animators who had run into roadblocks at previous jobs to join his team, Bird told TED’s Work Life podcast in 2019. “I want people who are disgruntled because they have a better way of doing things and they are having trouble finding an avenue,” he said. They ended up creating the blockbuster film The Incredibles, a radical departure from Pixar’s earlier films and its biggest hit at the time.
Some of the best-known businesses in the world have been driven by anger of rivalry, as the BBC reported nearly a decade ago. Take Puma and Adidas, global sportswear brands founded by two German brothers who had a falling out that spilled into business. Or look at Reed Hastings, who once racked up $40 in late fees at video-rental chain Blockbuster, and whose simmering annoyance was one of the factors that drove him to start Netflix. Then there’s Uber creator Travis Kalanick, whose idea for a fleet of taxis people could summon from their phones came out of his frustration at being unable to find a cab in San Francisco one late night.
To be sure, not all reactions to anger are positive: Anger can also make people more prone to cheating, as another of Lench’s tests showed. It’s not hard to see how that would be a liability in high-pressure fields where workers are paid based on performance and oversight is lacking (as any number of indictments for financial fraud indicate.)
And too much anger, of course, can be a quick route to being fired, with most companies moving fast to dismiss workers for an angry comment or muttered threat they deem violent.
So the key to using anger effectively on the job is to direct it, Lench said. For instance, if your goal is to succeed at a specific task, like finishing a research project, and there’s a specific obstacle preventing it, like knowledge of a policy, anger might well help you accomplish that task. On the other hand, said Lench, “If your goal is, say, to look good in front of the boss, sabotaging another coworker would not help you get there.”
In a society that prizes happiness above nearly everything else, the research from Lench and her coauthors offers a reminder that even so-called “negative” emotions have purpose.
Anger “is frequently discussed as an emotion that should be regulated or controlled,” they write, “so much so that people will pay money to avoid experiencing it.” This paper, though, adds to a body of research that shows that, while we may prefer more “positive” emotions, using “negative” ones can be more effective.
“[I]t is not that some emotions are beneficial and some are harmful,” they write, but that, “much like a Swiss army knife that includes different tools to address different needs, different emotions are best suited to solve specific problems.”