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All of Us Have Murderous Instincts, Here’s Why

Photo by Debashis RC Biswas on Unsplash

More often than not, you will come across a news story that involves a murder. This is troubling, especially when the perpetrators of these heinous acts had no previous criminal records. The witness interviews reflect a “good” person, though maybe stressed and angry but no one could ever foresee the possibility of them becoming murderers.

Mostly when we read such news we think of the victim, the injustice. We may wonder, what if the same fate befalls me? While it is okay to think like this, we should also be open to the possibility that we, equally, have the instincts that can drive us to take of life.

One of the primary emotions that drive people to these levels of aggression is anger. In this article, we shall have a deep dive into understanding anger. We shall learn what it is, where it comes from, and how to regulate it. Truth be told, we all get angry. And anger is a useful emotion, but we have to check it before it gets to animalistic levels.

Anger is one letter short of danger

Have you ever been in a situation where someone does something to you and you feel offended? Your heart starts to race. You feel hot. You cannot concentrate on anything other than the violation. You clench your fists. All you can think of doing is inflicting harm upon your offender, either verbally or physically.

Most of us have been there, and maybe sometimes you have even abused your offenders or acted passive-aggressively. News flash! You were angry.

According to Charles Darwin, the father of evolution, anger is an emotional state that varies in intensity from mild irritation or annoyance to mild fury and rage. Aristotle adds that it is provoked by the perception of being treated badly and this motivates a desire for vengeance.

Anger is one of the instinctive emotions that we evolved to have. The reason we get angry is because of perceived threats. The physiological adjustments that happen in our bodies, the blood rush, temperature rise, and muscle tension, all of these help us respond appropriately to a threat. Anger is therefore a deadly emotion. Once it takes over, the instinct is to eliminate the threat. Plato noted this and suggested that despite anger being this strong emotion, it should be regulated by reason. Seneca emphasizes reason when he notes that anger clouds one’s judgment and leads to impaired interpersonal effectiveness.

A good mantra to remember every time you get angry is  ‘anger is one letter short of danger.’

Fight, flight or fright

Behind anger lies fear. As previously mentioned, anger is our response to a perceived threat. This reaction comes from our primitive brain. Our primitive brain is a reaction brain, not a thinking braining. When our radar picks up a threat, the primitive brain leapfrogs the thinking brain and flies straight into the action, fight, flight or fright. Most of the time, anger is the fight mode. Because of the effectiveness of the primitive part of our brain, when you are angry, you move faster than your brain. You act first and then do the damage analysis later. This does not always turn out well. People might die, or you might harm yourself, your reputation, or your career, and/or that of others.

Let us expound on this further. To understand ‘anger’ you must understand perspective. Anger is a reaction to a perceived threat. The threat might be real or not, but our brain does not know the difference, especially the primitive brain. For that part of the brain, action is always better than not reacting and being harmed. You must understand the frames that you are in so as to adjust your perspectives accordingly. Perspective shapes the type of information you intake during a situation. The brain tends to believe the first thing that comes to mind hence if your perception is wrong, your first impression will be distorted and you may end up reacting to the wrong threat.

Is anger inherited?

Anger is an emotion that evolved to enable our bodies to react to perceived threats. This was and still is very useful as it demarcates your space and helps you monitor it effectively for any danger that might be looming. Having understood that, can our levels of anger be inherited genetically? Yes, to a given extent, aggression is heritable. Part of our arsenal, anger included, comes from genetic inheritance and part of it comes from our socialization. Since we cannot alter our genes to remove the aggression passed down to us, we can regulate our anger by learning how to socialize ourselves appropriately.

Do different genders experience anger differently?

Both men and women experience similar levels of anger but two things vary: what makes each angry, and how both of them express their anger.

Women tend to get angry more because of things like a betrayal of trust, rebuff, negligence, unwarranted criticism, rejecting behaviour, and partner’s emotional constriction, whereas, on the other hand, men get angered by moodiness, self-absorption, fear, and jealousy. This does not mean that either men or women do not get angered by those stated for the opposite gender; it just means that for that particular gender, those things tick them off more.

Also, the way the different genders express their anger differs. For males, aggression is more physical and instantaneous whereas for females it may be a bit subtle and might be meditated over for some time.

How do you know you are angry?

• Anger manifests in destructive fantasies. The moment you start plotting in your head how to harm someone, even if it is in small ways, you are starting to manifest anger.

• When you are angry you alienate reason. Anger sends you straight into action. It is important to check yourself so that you can engage reason before flying into action. If you fail to engage reason you might find yourself doing irreversible destruction.

• When you are angry you are rigid and impulsive. You think short-term and have no account of future consequences.

• When angry you replay the perceived threat or injustice in your head over and over. This does not help as it ends up making you angrier and that might result in extreme action.

Important to note: People prone to experiencing high levels of anger also exhibit qualities such as being ambitious, competitive, impatient, and aggressive. These people tend to be goal-oriented and anger might be triggered by goal obstruction or a threat to their ego and identity.

Dangers of anger

• Anger makes you act impulsively, without reason. Considering that anger is an animalistic emotion, meaning it signals the elimination of threat; it can cause you to take extreme action that you might end up regretting later.

• Being in a state of anger for a long time can also lead you to develop hypertension, coronary heart disease (CHD), and/or coronary artery disease (CAD).

• The strenuous efforts of hypertension to suppress angry feelings can also result in chronic activation of the cardiovascular system, and, eventually, in fixed elevations in blood pressure.

• Anger can also lead to maladaptive effects which are important contributors of psychoneuroses, depression, and schizophrenia.

Important to note: When aggression is not directly expressed outwards it is usually turned back into self. This results in depression and other psychosomatic manifestations such as hypertension, respiratory ailments, gastrointestinal disturbances, migraine and tension headaches, pelvic pain, impotence, frigidity, dermatitis, and ulcers.

Myths about dealing with anger

When it comes to dealing with anger, there is some advice that is usually thrown around. While it is not completely wrong, it does not necessarily help one contend with their anger and figure out a way to deal with it.

Instinctive Impulse myth – We tend to think of anger as automatic and uncontrollable. Whereas it arises from our primitive brain, it is possible to control our anger through reason and perspective. Accepting that anger is impulsive renders you to explanations like ‘anger made me do it.’ You deny yourself the control that your ‘thinking brain’ endows you by alleviating your responsibility. Anger builds from a source, and finding the source is the start of you taking control. Finding your triggers can help you to control your impulses.

Ventilation myth – When you are angry, find something to punch or kick.

Ventilation only serves to increase the feelings of anger rather than diminishing them; it also makes them less inhibited. Once you show your anger that hitting is what healing looks like, you will find something to hit whenever you get angry. Today you might hit something inanimate but further down, you will end up hitting a person. The only positive about ventilation is that one has gotten to a level of acknowledging one is angry.

Sharing myth – This one is two-sided. If you share with a professional or an objective person, they might give you the right feedback and the issue will be off your chest. But if you sharing with your sympathizers you will only end up justifying your anger and validating your angry feelings. This does not help you in any way to address the real problem. The positive on this one is that it helps to know that you are not alone and others are experiencing the same challenges as you are.

Revenge myth – Revenge fuels a cycle of escalation. It does not alleviate anger, rather it propagates it. Confucius put it very well: before you embark on a journey of revenge, dig two graves.

Also read: Embracing Vulnerability: What You Cannot Reveal, You Cannot Heal


Tags: anger, anger management, rage, emotions

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