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Why are we so angry?

Why are we so angry?


Dr Bob Murray considers what drives an increase in anger and how lawyers can respond

I saw these two headlines recently: “The WHO reports that domestic violence has increased by 60% in Europe since the start of covid-19.” (CNN)

“In some parts of the US there are reports of a near-100% increase in child abuse.” (PBS)

I’ve been sitting looking at my computer keyboard with these statistics whirring in my mind. How did it come to this; and why write about this for lawyers? Surely it’s time to write an uplifting piece about the future of law when restrictions are being lifted? But there’s the rub. Every time I begin to tap out the first paragraph of a good news article, I find my writing consumed with anger.

There’s a lot to be angry about – those statistics for a start. Then there’s the loss '¨of jobs, status and dignity that many are facing, including many solicitors and their clients (something that started long before the virus hit).

There’s the mounting inequality caused by automation and the resulting devaluation of human labour; incompetent leadership; and the destruction of the environment at the altar of corporate profit. And more.

The anger has been growing for years. '¨Its origins are found in a number of areas – contextual, biological, cultural, historical '¨– even anthropological. As a scientist, I '¨look at this societal anger and ask some '¨fundamental questions: 

  • What causes anger, resentment, and aggression (which are all allied)?
  • Why now?
  • What next?'¨

We all get angry at times. A minority are consumed by ongoing anger, resentment, and aggression. For most of us our anger bubbles beneath the surface, occasionally bursting forth. Research has shown that we need those outbursts which, for the most part, are verbal. As we get more afraid, as our autonomy and sense of control are stripped away, as we feel increasingly unsupported, the anger is liable to become more physical, more violent. Hence the above statistics.

Many studies have shown that anger is associated with anxiety born of uncertainty, helplessness and loss of control. Scientifically speaking, anger is the result of multiple factors but the most obvious involves the stress hormone, cortisol. 

When we get anxious the level of cortisol in our system goes up, triggering negative effects in the body. When anxiety reaches a certain level or is sustained over a long time, our heart rate remains unsustainably high, making us more prone to heart disease. A high level of cortisol also makes us more liable to other serious illnesses.

Cortisol in the brain acts as a neurotransmitter that readies the whole system for fight, flight or freeze. I’ve spoken to law leaders in the UK and elsewhere who find that they are less able to make decisions, even vital ones affecting their firms. That’s anxiety-derived freeze.

Anger releases the tension that anxiety builds up and reduces the level of cortisol. At the same time testosterone levels climb in both women and men. Cortisol-driven anxiety provokes a desire to withdraw, especially from those close to us, whereas testosterone-driven anger propels us closer to that which makes us angry and drives us to take action; and so the possibility of violence increases.

In families this causes the abuse headlined at the start. In firms this inevitably leads to increased bullying and sexual harassment.

Which leads to the question, why now? 
Besides the issue of the lockdown, resentment has been building for years. Many solicitors complain to me that their clients are becoming increasingly angry.

Supportive relationships make us feel safe and able to contain our anger and mitigate our anxiety. We are genetically designed to be surrounded by a nexus of relational support.

But there has been a relentless undermining of the value and importance of relationships. Because of social media, smartphone use and other technology, relationships have become a throwaway commodity instead of something that people – especially younger people – could call on for support. 

This leads to anger at self. Since we are programmed to surround ourselves with supportive relationships, when we lose that support or feel we really don’t have it (eg when all our ‘friends’ are Facebook friends), we feel there is something wrong with us.

So we turn the anger inward. The effectiveness of our immune systems – both psychic and biological – decline. We become mentally or physically ill. Suicide appears the only way out of our self-hate. A sense of isolation is one of the reasons for the high rate of suicide in the legal profession.

Pandemic legacy
The statistics above mean we’re creating a future where anger will be more pervasive, because a disrupted, anxious or abused period of childhood due to parental anger or violence will create a generation of anxious, angry and/or depressed adults. These are your future clients.

Is there a way out? Is there a future not filled with anger and resentment? Nobody can know for sure, but there are hopeful signs. Chief among these is the growing sense of neighbourhood awareness. People are getting to know their neighbours better. District community-help organisations are sprouting up. 

We’re relearning how to rely on those physically close to us both for small and major things – people who will notice when we’re around and worry when they haven’t seen us. There’s a growing sense of relationship that people who I use Zoom to contact around the world are noticing in their own communities. 

When neighbours are physically and emotionally close, abuse is less prevalent so it’s safer for children and spouses. 
This new neighbourliness is largely based on a common fear of the virus and the fact we’re forced to work from home. So, it is fragile and tentative.

But if it lasts, the oxytocin transporter gene (the enabler of trust, bonding, empathy and meaningful spirituality) in each of us will work its miracle to reduce anxiety and anger; and at least mitigate the symptoms of depression.

The other hopeful sign is that people are no longer willing to tolerate the growing inequality in our society. Many studies have shown societies collapse when inequality reaches a certain level. In hunter-gatherer societies, where private ownership of anything is virtually unknown (except for a few bits of decoration made of feathers, predator teeth or shells) the rate of inequality was low and the rate of social anger almost zero. 

The most famous measurement of social inequality is the Gini coefficient. According to this scale, a 0 rating equals perfect '¨equality (like that of the hunter-gatherers); and 1 is where one person or family has everything. Several recent studies have said 0.7 is near to societal collapse and 0.8 is the point at which the society will almost certainly collapse. 

We’re not far off it. Some studies have shown that the current Gini coefficient measurement of the world is about 0.68 (in 1820 at the start of the industrial revolution it was 0.43). A 2018 study reported that the US was at about 0.8 (no wonder the anger level is so high there). Other countries in the danger zone include Mexico, South Africa and Brazil. The UK is not far behind.

So maybe there’s hope that the ending of covid-19 will mean a reduction in violence and a lessening of our anger. But for that to happen, fundamental change must take place – not just in governments and political systems, but in the way we live, and how we relate to and work with each other.  

Dr Bob Murray is a behavioural psychologist with an interest in legal and professional services. For the latest on human behaviour and wellness, and how these relate to leadership and strategy, sign up for Dr Murray’s weekly newsletter Today’s Research