Simon Laham's blog.
The upside of anger
Despite anger’s status as a deadly sin, this ubiquitous emotion is quite functional.
Anger serves as a motivational force, keeping us on track when we face obstacles to our goals. It focuses us on rewards in the environment and gives us a sense control that empowers us to persist.
Yet despite this narrowing, focusing function of anger in the face of obstacles, research by Matthijs Baas, Carsten De Dreu and Bernard Nijstad suggests that anger may also drive creativity, not narrowing, but expanding our field of view in certain instances.
In one study, they brought participants in to the lab and first had them recall and write about a time that they had felt angry. Other participants wrote about a time that they had felt sad. After this memory task, which was actually a mood induction, participants then did a brainstorming session about ways to improve teaching in the university’s psychology department. After the experiment the researchers had the ideas generated by the angry and sad participants coded for creativity and found that the angry subjects generated more original ideas than their sad counterparts.
Interestingly, however, this anger-induced creative edge was short-lived. When the researchers did a fine-grained analysis of creativity as a function of time, they found that anger promoted creativity for about ten minutes or so, after which time the angry became less creative than the sad.
To explore the temporal aspect of anger’s creative side, Baas and colleagues ran another study in which participants once again wrote about anger- or sadness- inducing past events and then did a creativity task. This time, subjects did the Remote Associates Test (RAT), which is a task that requires one to provide a response word that ties together three targets (e.g., envy, golf, beans. Answer: green). Once again, angry participants were initially more creative than sad and neutral participants but this advantage decreased over time.
To get at just why anger’s effect on creativity is time-dependent, Baas also asked participants how fatigued and washed-out they felt after the task. He speculated that because anger is quite an arousing emotion, the anger experience is quite taxing for people. Thus the initial burst of creative energy, if maintained for any length of time, saps one’s resources, leaving one fatigued and unable to persist at the same level of creativity.
As predicted, Baas found that angry participants felt more fatigued than the other participants and that this fatigue accounted for the fading of anger’s creative impetus.
More and more, psychologists are uncovering the beneficial side of the so-called negative emotions. For some time we have known that anger drives us to persist. It also seems to make us more creative.