In this second part of the psychology of emotions we’ll continue to explore the mechanism underlying our behavior and attitudes.
This time the focus is on another negative emotion - anger, which has a special role in our survival and continuity, and we’ll also see what makes people aggressive and which chemicals are involved.
In the second part of this page we’ll also talk about our moral judgments and how they are directed by our emotions and not necessarily by pure rational thought.
Just a reminder: In the first part we discussed the difference between feelings and emotions, the main parts that are responsible for their organization (the Amygdala and the Prefrontal Cortex) and analyzed the emotion of fear.
Let’s start with a basic yet fundamental question - why we get angry? Wouldn’t be a better world if we learn to control our impulses and live peacefully for eternity?
Why of course it does, but our world is not a perfect one, animals and plants compete with each other constantly to survive and reproduce. Anger, along with fear, is part of our flight-or-fight response which designed to help us in tight spots, when our survival depends on it.
Anger is a psychological mode meant to energize you and force you to take action. Anger is a catalizator for change, it’s the emotion that gets you out of control and forces you to take action in spite of your fear or other setbacks.
Aggressive behavior, however, can be proactive - it’s a sort of behavior that used to signal others that you’re willing to fight if needed. In the animal kingdom it’s utilized to threaten others - to keep them away or subdue them.
Naturally, both anger and aggression have very big downsides in social interactions and therefore kept for truly dire necessities - when the life or continuity of the animal are under threat or when they need to compete with others on available territory or mates.
Even when it comes to dire straits, most animals will keep to threats, rather than actually fight. The reason for this is logical: fighting can be hazardous for both combatants, both animals can get hurt or even die in the end result. Accordingly, most animals will often use an aggressive stance only as a tool to subdue or scare the other animal.
Aggression in humans - social tool?
You can argue that in humans, acting aggressively is also a tool to climb the social hierarchy ladder or to achieve some other personal gains, and you’ll be right, but it’s a bad strategy if you plan on building long lasting relationships.
Even the stereotypical image of the alpha male as the strongest and biggest member is not always correct: in chimpanzees, the alpha male isn’t necessarily the strongest male, but the one with the strongest social bonds. The leader must be a good politician to get the support of the rest of his tribe by making good alliances.
So all in all, aggression can be used as a tool to dominate others by fear, but is much less stable and long lasting than relationships built on mutual goals and understanding.
So we know what aggression is for, but it still doesn’t answer why we vary in our reactions to similar events. One of the explanation for this difference is found inside our head - neurological and biochemical variations that turns some of us into zen monks and others to raging bulls.
First of all is the Amygdala vs the PFC (Pre-Frontal Cortex) modulation that I already talked about in the context of fear . Since our amygdala is sensitive to threats, it encourages us to deal with them - by either running from or fighting them. The PFC is the mediator in such cases - it allows us to evaluate the situation and regulate our emotions (it can also enhance them).
So one theory suggests that in impulsive people this balance of power is shifted towards the Amygdala. There is evidence for this in teenagers, since their amygdala matures earlier in life, whereas the prefrontal cortex later (around the time of puberty), and so teenagers lack the proper “hardware” to deal with their intense emotions.
If we talk about chemicals - then Serotonin is worth mentioning, because this is the neurotransmitter (link) that used in communication from the PFC to the Amygdala. Serotonin is involved in many processes and has a big role in determining your mood, he is also a key component in many antidepressants.
With this in mind, researchers speculated that administered antidepressant might calm impulsive and antisocial behavior. In this study , they found that Prozac (Fluoxetine), that contains Serotonin, actually lowers violent and risky behavior in people who have problems with self control.
The third “big” player in the modulation emotion of anger is Testosterone, as you might already guessed. Testosterone mainly a male hormone (females also have it, but in smaller amounts) and associated with sex drive, dominance and aggression. This is not a new idea, and it’s one of the reasons why we neuter our pets - to make them more docile.
However, in humans the relation between testosterone and dominance and aggression is not truly clear - we are still not sure whether having more testosterone makes you more aggressive or the other way around, that being more competitive and aggressive causes you to have more testosterone.
Anyway, it is clear that we have correlation between them. Again, it’s especially evident during the puberty of young boys: their testosterone levels are rising and they become more competitive and reckless.
These are the main biological factors to consider when it comes to aggression, but they are not the only affecting it. motivation, attitude and life experience also have a huge part to play when it comes to how aggressive we act.
I mentioned earlier that I will discuss how our morals are mainly the result of our emotions. It’s time to fulfill that promise.
Once again I want to return to our familiar friend - the vmPFC, this part of our brain has a big role to play in our cognitive processes and inhibiting inappropriate behavior.
We know today that the vmPFc plays a part in how we evaluate problems in our lives and is sort of a counter-balance to the amygdala which encourages us to react impulsively.
What happens when we have to make moral decisions?
We usually listen to our moral compass, our internal guide that tells us how to act evaluating the situation - this moral “compass” is actually an emotion, elicited by the vmPFC. We feel bad when we don’t act accordingly to our emotion, and it doesn’t have to be rational.
To test what is the source for our moral judgements scientists compared the judgments of people who had brain injury in their prefrontal cortex vs the judgements of healthy people:
When it came to non-moral decisions such as: “where do you prefer to eat?” there was no difference between the groups.
Even when it came to impersonal but moral decision such as to save one vs to save many - the impaired group made similar choices as the healthy group. It was obvious to all subjects that it’s better to save more lives at the expense of the few. A good example to such dilemma is the trolley problem:
“There is a runaway trolley barreling down the railway tracks. Ahead, on the tracks, there are five people tied up and unable to move. The trolley is headed straight for them. You are standing some distance off in the train yard, next to a lever. If you pull this lever, the trolley will switch to a different set of tracks. However, you notice that there is one person on the side track. You have two options: (1) Do nothing, and the trolley kills the five people on the main track. (2) Pull the lever, diverting the trolley onto the side track where it will kill one person. Which is the correct choice?”
However, the test found difference when it came to personal and moral dilemmas, such dilemmas are quite similar to the moral impersonal example but with one major difference - it involves taking a difficult personal action:
“As before, a trolley is hurtling down a track towards five people. You are on a bridge under which it will pass, and you can stop it by putting something very heavy in front of it. As it happens, there is a very fat man next to you – your only way to stop the trolley is to push him over the bridge and onto the track, killing him to save five. Should you proceed?”
From a clear rational and numerical perspective, it’s basically the same problem as the first one - you save either one or five lives. However, for most healthy people the decision to push the fat man to his death is much harder. We have a strong bad feeling when we think about doing such moral decision, because we feel personally responsible for the consequence. This is a major thing, and many of us will abstain from taking action, even though we know it may have a price.
The group with the damaged vmPFC however, have no such problems, from their perspective it’s the same moral dilemma.
This utilitarian attitude, while might be logical, is actually harmful when it comes to personal life, because other people see things differently.
Many of our decisions are not based on clear logic or judgments, but rather on the way we feel about them. We feel bad when we don't act upon them. We may call it conscious and try to rationalize our decisions, but it’s still doesn't change the fact that emotions have huge impact on our judgements. People with abnormal brain activity in areas that regulate emotions - also have abnormalities in their decision making process, what in turn makes their social life much confusing and harder.
So it’s ok if we’re not completely rational, because we’re irrational in the same way, and we can understand and communicate with each other by our emotions. Sometimes, the rational thing to do, is not so rational when it comes to social interactions.