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Anger Fuels Some of Our Toughest Problems

Why the war in Ukraine and school shootings both stem from cycles of anger.

Key points

  • When we feel victimized, anger is energizing, making us feel powerful.
  • Like other emotions, anger can be appropriate. But, when used chronically to feel better about ourselves, can be as destructive as an addiction.
  • Russian aggression in Ukraine and school shootings in America both stem from "anger addiction" arising from feelings of abuse and alienation.
  • The first step to tackling such tough problems is to accept that our own use of anger to feel better could exacerbate these problems.

School shootings and the war in Ukraine stem from a common cause.

According to a 2019 US Secret Service report on school shootings, the majority of school shooters had been bullied, and virtually all had otherwise felt alienated and excluded from the mainstream. Such chronic abuse and alienation from peers, forcing some students into an “out-group” promotes feelings of intense hatred towards both abusers and the “in-group,” which in turn, sometimes boils over into school violence. The Uvalde, Texas shooter, for example, had a history of being bullied, as did the Sandy Hook shooter a decade earlier.

Evolutionary psychology, which asserts that modern brains, due to the relatively slow pace of evolution, still run ancient “Darwinian scripts” that helped our ancestors survive in a kill-or-be-killed world, has an explanation for hateful violence from those who feel excluded from the mainstream: in the pre-historic world, inclusion meant survival through cooperation and mutual defense while exclusion likely meant a lonely death fending for yourself against predators and starvation.

From an evolutionary point of view, getting angry and killing those who would otherwise kill you through exclusion, is understandable, if not excusable.

Exclusion from the mainstream also can lead to violence among nations. Japan declared war on America in 1941 after being banned from buying the oil it needed for its industrial economy.

And Russia's recent attack on Ukraine can also be viewed as hateful violence in reaction to exclusion from the mainstream. Situated on Europe's eastern periphery, and slow to embrace the Industrial Revolution, Russia has a history of resenting Europe's looking down on them as backward and inferior. “Bullying” invasions from Napoleon and Hitler, followed by the creation of an explicitly anti-Russian military alliance, NATO, then NATO's threatening expansion right up to Russia's borders in the last twenty years, added to Russia's sense of isolation and exclusion. After watching one of its former states, Ukraine, abandon it for the West and flirt with NATO membership, and coping with exclusionary economic sanctions, Russia attacked Ukraine with full force.

Although other factors played a role in both recent school shootings and the outbreak of war in Ukraine, hateful feelings from exclusion almost certainly contributed significantly to both kinds of violence.

Treating anger like a drug addiction

School shootings and wars do not spontaneously occur, but are usually the culmination of long standing self-reinforcing vicious circles. According to a recent survey of 7,347 subjects1, bullies are twice as likely to have been bullied themselves, and most experienced some kind of trauma or stress that caused them to feel powerless, motivating them to regain a sense of power by bullying others. Some of those bullied by such people, in turn exhibit violence, including school shootings.

Russia and the West, with Ukraine in the middle, are also locked in a vicious cycle of animosity, where aggression by one side (e.g., Germany's invasion of Russia in 1941) prompted aggression from the other (e.g., Russia's brutal domination of Eastern Europe after World War II to “buffer” it from the West) then to another Western reaction (the formation of NATO to protect against further Russian expansion) followed by additional actions by Russia to counter NATO (recent invasions of Georgia and Ukraine).

This year, Western economic sanctions against Russia and military aid to Ukraine on the one hand and Russian atrocities on the other have accelerated and deepened the cycle of mutual loathing.

And diplomacy shows no signs of cooling these fires of hatred, just as measures to reduce both bullying and school shootings in America did not stop Columbine, Sandy Hook, Parkland, Uvalde, or dozens of other school shootings.

An important reason for these failures is that the anger that fuels such violence is like an addictive drug, and addictions are notoriously hard to treat. Anger is empowering and energizing. To be clear, there is no psychiatric diagnosis of "anger addiction," but psychiatrist Jean Kim explains2 that anger stimulates limbic circuits in the brain in a manner similar to addictive drugs and “becomes its own reward.” Thus, people who would otherwise get depressed and anxious from feeling oppressed and excluded, sometimes chronically “self-medicate” with anger, just as those who have been bullied turn into bullies themselves to feel powerful rather than powerless.

The idea that anger can be like addiction suggests one possible way out of the vicious cycles of both school violence and geopolitical violence: “drug” treatment that starts with accepting the problem for what it really is—an habitual response vs. a wholly justified reaction to injustice.

After that all-important first step, other “interventions” to break the anger cycle are possible, such as pointing out that violence usually produces the exact opposite of its desired effect (e.g., Russia's aggression against Ukraine greatly strengthened, rather than weakened, NATO).

Whom to treat?

Getting real for a moment, is there any chance of convincing a Kremlin leader or bullied kid on the verge of shooting his classmates to take the first step and accept that their rage is like addiction that needs treatment? Almost certainly not.

But the rest of us sometimes fuel anger-violence cycles without realizing it, and hopefully, there is hope for us.

I'll use my own struggles with anger as an example of taking the first step to accepting that many “ordinary people” may unwittingly contribute to both school violence and war.

In a previous blog, I described how I was bullied as a child, and thus, later in life verbally bullied subordinates at work to shore up my low self-esteem. It never occurred to me that some of the workers I abused might have gone home and taken out their own resulting rage on their kids, who in turn became school bullies. I'll never know if venting my anger in the workplace started a chain reaction leading to school violence, but it certainly could have.

Similarly, growing up during the cold war, cowering under my desk during school air raid drills during the Cuban Missile Crisis, I developed a deep animosity towards Russia that helped motivate me to work in national security and to write a popular book emphasizing the Russian peril. As with my workplace bullying, I never stopped to consider that writing that book might add fuel to the fires of a later war (e.g., by bolstering public support for countering Russia on the battlefield).

Although I, as a single individual, probably did not trigger a school shooting or war, when you add my struggles with anger to those of millions of others, the possibility that anger's consequences contribute to war and school shootings becomes a probability, if not a certainty.

The bottom line? To tackle wicked problems such as school violence and war, we should not start by looking to our politicians, who are prone to exploit and enflame voter anger to get elected. Instead, we should start by looking in the mirror.


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