New Research Reveals How Anger Can Be A Powerful Form Of Motivation

Researcher Heather C. Lench explains the powerful impact that anger can have on goal achievement.

Mark Travers, Ph.D.

By Mark Travers, Ph.D. | July 02, 2024

A new study published in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology investigated the functional role of anger in improving goal attainment when faced with challenges. The core premise is that emotions, including anger, are functional and enhance outcomes for individuals.

I recently spoke to lead author of the paper, Heather C. Lench—researcher and professor at the Department of Psychological and Brain Sciences at Texas A&M University. Our discussion focused on the emotion of anger and its significant role in driving people to take action and overcome challenges. Here's a summary of our conversation.

What inspired you to investigate the role of anger in goal attainment?

My lab has been interested in the topic of when negative emotions can be helpful for people for years. Anger, in particular, has a reputation as being an emotion that should be suppressed or avoided.

So, we were interested in whether anger could help people, specifically in situations where they are trying to accomplish challenging goals. This is the situation that has been shown to cause anger, and so theoretically, this is when anger should be helpful.

What causes individuals to feel angry when pursuing their goals, and how does this anger lead to improved goal attainment?

People feel angry when they perceive an obstacle to their goals. So, they want something but cannot get it because they are being blocked in some way. The emotion of anger is associated with a number of changes in how people's physiology, thinking and behavior.

Those changes prepare people to take action. In our study, we were testing if the anger and associated changes helped people to overcome the block to their goals and achieve success in challenging situations.

Although it's often advised to approach problems with a cool head, in what scenarios can anger be especially helpful?

Anger is highly motivating, which can help attain goals in multiple situations. But, that does not mean that all responses to anger are helpful. For example, you might have a goal to complete a work assignment, but your computer keeps crashing. Your computer crashing is the obstacle to your goal, and you'll feel anger. But there are different ways to approach this obstacle:

  • Your anger could motivate you to crash your computer to the ground. This removes the obstacle but does not help you achieve your bigger goal of finishing your project.
  • Or, your anger could motivate you to take your computer to the repair shop right away. This removes the obstacle and helps you achieve your bigger goal of finishing your project.

So, anger can be beneficial, but people still should be thoughtful about their responses to ensure they align with their long-term, bigger goals.

Are there any other emotions that can aid in goal attainment?

The theory behind these studies is that all emotions aid goal attainment in specific situations. It's not that all emotions are always helpful, but that specific emotions are useful in specific situations.

Sadness is felt when a goal has been irrevocably lost, and the responses to sadness are thought to help people move on from the lost goal and think carefully to avoid similar losses in the future.

Anxiety is felt when a goal is threatened, but the outcome is uncertain, and responses to anxiety are thought to help people take action now to avoid or reduce the threat. You might have seen the Inside Out movies, which nicely capture these psychological theories—that different emotions all have a role to play in our lives, just in different situations.

How can people harness the power of their emotions and make them work for them instead of against them?

Findings suggest that a first step is recognizing that emotions are not "bad," even if they feel bad to experience in the moment. Seeing emotions as states that can be helpful allows people to identify what they are feeling and then evaluate how to respond to that emotion.

Instead of ignoring or avoiding emotions, people can feel emotions and think about the best way to respond to the situation that caused them. For example, you're angry at your computer crashing repeatedly. This is a signal that your computer is a problem for your goals. That means it's time to stop what you're doing and figure out the best action to take to get rid of that problem and achieve your goal.

© Psychology Solutions 2024. All Rights Reserved.