When we are confronted, stressed, or otherwise feeling anxiety, our brains have many defense mechanisms. These defenses protect our self-esteem, ego, our cherished beliefs, or our comforting mental models of the world. One of the many tools in this bag of defensive tricks is hostility or the Anger Response.
|Angry Comedian Lewis Black. Photograph by Cla McBride|
Flame WarsFlame Wars are nothing new on the Internet and many of these raging rants are great examples of the Anger Response. You can find flame wars in the comments section of nearly any popular story about a wedge issue (politics, religion...). What could be a rational debate about the problems, policies, and solutions often devolves into name-calling and mudslinging.
I have often wondered why this is the case. If someone states something that you believe to be false, you can make a counterpoint, ask for sources, or maybe even think about it, read more, and learn something. If you have done these things, you have stated your case, and you still don't agree, then agree to disagree and walk away. You might not have convinced that one person, but if you have stated a good case, it may help all the other people that will read it later. Name-calling or (even worse) threats are never going to convince someone that you are right and might even dissuade others from your side; and yet it happens over and over again.
Why does this occur? This must serve another purpose.
Is it simply a lack of emotional and social intelligence? These may be contributing factors to the behavior, but I think there is more to it. Another contributing factor, is that in a face-to-face conversation, we generally limit ourselves to avoid a physical confrontation. Online forums remove the inhibition that the fear of being punched in the face provides. So the forum medium may remove the inhibition, but that still does not explain why anyone would select such an ineffective debate technique.
Anger can be used to substitute nearly any emotion that causes us anxiety.
Given this, I will submit my own baseless hypothesis. Anger can be used to substitute for nearly any emotion that causes us anxiety. When we are confronted with something that disrupts our status quo, challenges a deeply held belief or our self-perception, confuses us, frustrates us, or creates cognitive dissonance, one of the defence mechanisms at our brain's disposal is the Anger Response.
Ironically, despite outward appearances, anger creates a self-soothing sense of control. If the only options available to our brain are confusion, frustration, loss of self-perception or anger, then anger is the knee-jerk reaction that is going to often win. In many situations, your ego has the option of a display of weakness (confusion, self-questioning...), or a display of strength (anger). Regardless the rational choice, the emotional response is usually to avoid showing weakness. Here is how this particular mental glitch might play out: If you are in an argument with someone and you are starting to feel emotional about it, the welling emotions become difficult to deal with. This emotional vulnerability is painted over with a coat of red. The unsettling emotions are masked with anger. You have been "amygdala hijacked". Now a rational discussion is impossible, this is a war zone and they are the enemy. In such a battle, shouting louder than the other side is a victory. In this state, the technical merits of the discussion are no longer relevant, only the emotional ones matter now. We want to "win" and, once in this state, we will burn bridges and insult your mother to do it. If we win, then we were not wrong, or inconsiderate. Victory means that our self-esteem is justified, whatever self-doubts we might have had were unfounded.
Anger Response Applied to Plug-in CarsPlug-in vehicles are a disruptive technology. They rock the boat on several fronts. Many people are happy with things the way they are today. So when they hear things like plug-in cars are part of the solution to foreign oil dependency, CO2 emissions, or air quality... for some, they don't even want to hear that there is a problem. Problems would disrupt their status quo. Denial of the problem is much simpler. Once these are denied, all the post-rationalization methods that our brains are so good at can be utilized.
If these rationalizations are threatened in any way, then the anger response can be invoked to shutdown the messenger. The more fragile the rationalization, the more likely that defensiveness will emerge and anger response is to be deployed.
There are plenty of people online that can rationally discuss the pros and cons of plug-in driving. If you encounter an anti-EV rager, now you have some understanding of the underlying mentality, even if they do not.