Why is everyone so angry?

It is likely an unanswerable question.

Likewise, it is probably also impossible to gauge whether people are collectively angrier today than in the past, but E. Scott Geller, a longtime professor of psychology, says our shared circumstances, especially related to the COVID-19 pandemic, play a major role in the current prevalence of the feeling.

“We’ve been very frustrated,” said Geller. “When we get into routines, we can predict what is happening. It’s the perception of control. When you change the context in which we live, that can get frustrating, and frustration leads to aggression.”

An Alumni Distinguished Professor since 2005, Geller is in his 52nd year as a teacher and researcher in the Department of Psychology at Virginia Tech. He also serves as director of the Center for Applied Behavior Systems. He has authored, coauthored, or edited 51 books, 88 book chapters, 39 training manuals, 272 magazine articles, and over 300 research articles addressing the development and evaluation of behavior-focused interventions to improve human welfare and life satisfaction.

Not only have many people’s routines been altered by COVID-19, Geller also believes the necessity of wearing face coverings when around others indoors has also had an impact.

“A face mask certainly decreases a sense of social or interpersonal connection, and social support is key to subjective well-being,” he said.

This combined frustration can lead to aggression and then to negative actions. Social media has provided a somewhat consequence-free way for people to both negatively use that aggression, while also fueling more of it.

“In the good old days, if you had something negative to say, you had to say it to others to their face. And that prevented us from saying certain things,” Geller said. “We don’t have to be held accountable for our negative comments and that promotes more negative comments. People who join us and say, ‘yeah, I felt the same thing,’ and all the sudden we feel a sense of solidarity with the negativity.”

Geller also believes our circumstances are further compounded with a general lack of trust many people experience in our society.

“How many phone calls do we get, ridiculous calls, about someone using your credit card or this or that? What does that do to our consciousness and our idea of interpersonal trust?” he said.

“All of this helps create a lack of empathy and ultimately, has led us to becoming very self-serving and independent,” Geller said.

So, what can individuals do to curb angry feelings?

Geller said a good place to start is by individuals reestablishing a sense of empowerment. He suggests asking yourself three questions about any upcoming, potentially stressful task:

  1. Do I believe I can do this? And if not, what training do I need to be able to do this?
  2. Do I believe this behavior will help make a difference and bring about some ultimate goal or vision?
  3. Do I believe the outcome is worth the effort?

During any task, project, or goal, he suggests taking time to reflect on each bit of progress.

“Don’t just celebrate the achievement, celebrate the steps to achievement. The small victories,” Geller said.

When dealing with others, as well as behaviors that might be causing friction, he suggests exploring the motivations and intentions behind behaviors and developing a focus on connectivity and community.

“The best you can ever be is not to be self-actualized, but self-transcendent in that you go beyond yourself for someone else,” Geller said. “If we can move from valuing independence to interdependence - if we develop the mindset that nobody can do it alone - we’re going to be nicer, kinder.”

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