A recent discussion about Donald Trump’s hair (which fascinates me because it seems to defy the laws of physics and fashion) led to something more serious: there’s a lot of anger out there, which is maybe why Trump’s popularity increases when he says bigoted things about Mexicans, women, and others.
Anger is nothing new. But certain situations seem to draw it out. My mother asked me, Why are some people so angry when they’re driving, honking and flipping the bird? But when they’re walking down the street they seem friendly?
Perhaps it’s the question du jour. Not long after our discussion, Hank Garfield wrote an op-ed for the Bangor Daily News asking why there’s no pedestrian road rage. Hank’s conclusion:
The inside of a car straddles the line between public and private space; we’re on our best behavior in one but not the other. When you’re stuck in a traffic jam, you’re stuck, unlike pedestrians and cyclists, who can simply go around; impotence leads to frustration. Drivers can’t directly communicate with each other beyond easily misconstrued gestures; it’s easier to apologize or express good will face-to-face and on foot. Driving is stressful; walking releases stress. And so on.
In brief, it’s the lack of direct human contact when we’re in a car.
Thing is, we’re not as moral as we think. The self-serving bias is well documented, and apparently intractable. Morality is about how we treat others, and it’s socially enforced. In isolation (in a car, online, etc.) there’s no accountability, and our inner jerk has a greater opportunity to make an appearance.
And there’s more bad news. Anger spreads faster than anything else. A lot faster than joy, which takes a distant second place.
Why? It is because anger is a negative emotion? Sadness isn’t so popular, so that can’t be it. But anger is intense and energizing, unlike a downer like sadness. But joy also is intense and energizing, so why would joy fall so far behind?
In The Happiness Hypothesis Jonathan Haidt points to evolution. The consequences of finding food aren’t as significant as missing a predator. You can find more food, but if you’re dead you are food. Haidt cites research which finds that it takes five good things to outweigh one bad thing.
Humans no longer live in our evolutionary environment. We have few natural predators, and those that exist (such as bears and lions) are not an everyday concern. But being stuck in traffic, immobilized with no options, still triggers an unconscious fear.
Research shows that when we are under extreme time pressure, we are more likely to behave unethically. When we operate in isolation, we are more likely to break rules. When incentives are very steep (we get a big reward if we reach a goal, but much less if we don’t), we are more likely to try to achieve them by hook or by crook.
Plato’s story of the Ring of Gyges (from the Republic) is a great metaphor. Do people really value goodness, or merely the appearance of goodness? What if you had a magic ring that made you invisible? Would you use it like a superhero to defend the innocent? Or would the lack of accountability corrupt your best intentions until you became a totally selfish asshole?
Plato’s musings helped inspire J.R.R. Tolkein to write The Lord of the Rings. A wicked long answer to Plato’s questions. But such a fun answer!
The Internet is the Ring of Gyges, the one ring to rule them all. Another interesting study found that after five days offline, teenagers’ emotional awareness notably improved. Maintaining niceness requires social interactions with immediate emotional feedback from others.
Anonymous, invisible, and unaccountable on the Internet, it’s surprising that there aren’t more trolls out there. When I see an anonymous person kindly disagreeing with someone online I think, there’s a person of character.
A while back a friend told me about a book called Radical Honesty. AJ Jacobs interviewed its author, Brad Blanton, for Esquire. Blanton told Jacobs that “I appreciate you for apparently having a real interest and hope you’re not just doing a cutesy little superficial dipshit job like most journalists.”
Jacobs, of course, did a superficial dipshit job. He missed Blanton’s central point: radical honesty starts with admitting to ourselves all the stuff that we try so hard to deny. In contrast, being blunt with others without being blunt with ourselves just makes us bigger assholes.
So that’s one (though certainly not the only) antidote to anger: getting in touch with your inner jerk. Or as atheist Jonathan Haidt (channeling Jesus) more tactfully puts it, focusing on the beam in your eye and not the speck in your neighbor’s.
This doesn’t mean being down on yourself. That’s just a passive-aggressive gambit for attention. Granted, you’re not better than the average person. On the other hand, you’re no worse than the average person either.