Written by Andrew Neff
The science of getting hype, does getting angry improve performance?
If you were an NFL football player warming up for the game, what would your warmup music be? Maybe some up-tempo EDM to let those rounded notes pulse your body awake. Maybe you’re playing some Enya to soothe your nerves. Or maybe, you’re thinking about the violence you’re expected to dole out, and you think you need to get aggressive; you need to get angry.
On one hand, we might view anger as reflexive — the world wrongs us, we feel mad. That anger isn’t about plotting or planning, it’s just a knee-jerk emotional response to an unjust world. But some psychologists take the perspective that emotional states manifest for a reason. Maybe we strive for happiness because it feels good, or maybe we aim for anger because it’s useful. From the feel-good perspective, anger doesn’t seem to make sense, scientists reason, because who really likes being angry? More sensibly, to scientists, anger is a means to an end; it serves an instrumental motive. After all, we see examples in the real world in which expressing anger could be useful: disciplining your kids, reprimanding a subordinate, or preparing for an aggressive activity.
A group of researchers out of Boston College tried to approach the question experimentally. Do people, on average, try to get themselves mad in preparation for aggressive activities? And, more importantly, does getting mad improve performance?
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Research subjects were told they were going to engage in one of two activities: a confrontational activity (a violent video game) or a non-confrontational activity (a serving-lunch based video game). Before the game, each participant had to make a choice. What type of music would they like to listen to: an aggressive, neutral, or cheerful tune? Do people — expecting to engage in a confrontational activity — choose to engage in activities that get them in an angry mindset?
The results were clear, and they were independently replicated by another lab - people who are anticipating confrontational activities are more likely to listen to aggressive music. But did we really need science for this? It seems like the biggest difference between what we all already knew, and what this study found, is that one is capital-S science, backed with certified P-values, elitist terminology, and university ethics board approval to top it off.
The much more interesting question is whether listening to aggressive music can improve our performance. Just because football players choose DMX and Nine Inch Nails doesn’t mean they’re getting anything out of it. What if people who listen to aggressive music are naturally better athletes, or what if they could hype themselves up in other ways? The answer to this question isn’t quite so obvious, but it could be relevant to our everyday warm-up routine before our more aggressive endeavors.
In the original study conducted by Maya Tamir and colleagues, one group of subjects was randomly assigned to listen to aggressive music before playing the violent video game, and another group was assigned peaceful music. Confirming their expectations, people listening to aggressive music performed better on the confrontational task, evident through their higher kill/death ratio on the game. However, when an independent group of researchers attempted to replicate this finding, a technical error occurred during the experiment that prevented them from coming to any conclusions. Therefore, we still need further confirmation that this phenomenon exists, and whether it generalizes to real-life and non-video-game based activities.
This study may have been intuitively obvious, but it tells us something about the way people perceive emotion — that is, we tend to think that emotions have a momentum to them. We don’t just get angry; anger takes time to warm up. From the perspective of survival, you might think we’d want our anger systems to be quick — we need to be ready to act when a danger’s present, and oftentimes we are. So why do we feel like we need to warm up our anger? Are we afraid of our anger coming our in a short and uncontrolled blast, pulling some sort of anger muscle, or too quickly using up our anger-mana-reserve? Is the anger we’re slowly generating somehow different from the quick, violent, fight-or-flight type responses we see in life-threatening situations? Or are we wrong about needing a warm-up in the first place? After all there’s only one experiment, as of early 2019, to Dr. Tamir’s knowledge, that specifically addressed this point, and that was her study.
Tamir, M., Mitchell, C., & Gross, J.J. (2008). Hedonic and instrumental motives in anger regulation. Psychological Science, 19(4). 324-328.
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