FOREST GROVE, Ore. — Mothers often tell little boys who complain of being shoved in a kindergarten lunch line: "Just shove back."
Girls, on the other hand, are told: "Don't pay any attention. Smile. Forget it. It's no big thing."
Such different treatment in childhood is one of the reasons men tend to blame others when they get mad, while women blame themselves and feel guilty about their anger, says Dr. Mary Kay Biaggio, a professor at Pacific University's Oregon Graduate School of Professional Psychology.
Biaggio is just completing a new round of research into the difference between men and women in their behaviorial response to anger.
The new studies tend to confirm research she conducted while teaching at Indiana State University, which she presented to the Western Psychological Assn. a year ago.
Angry men look away from themselves and seek to place the responsibility on someone or something else, Biaggio said. Women, meanwhile, generally feel guilty when they are mad--even if the cause of their anger is someone else's fault.
Higher Depression Rates
"They're more self-critical than men," she said. "This may be one reason why women have higher depression rates than men."
The differing ways in which men and women react to anger also could subtly contribute to "victim blame," Biaggio said.
If a woman loses her purse in a crowd, she and her friends wonder why she took that purse with her anyway. The rape victim often also feels guilt and shame, even though she did nothing to provoke the attack.
Society also enforces the feelings with direct or implied questions or statements, such as: "Why was she walking alone anyway?" or "She is just too friendly and naive," Biaggio said.
The difference in the way children are taught to deal with anger is also a factor, she said.
Despite such often-noted examples of "sensitive men" as Phil Donahue, Biaggio said it is macho for men to express their anger and to focus on external reasons, while women are expected to stay in their place and be nice.
"These findings are group differences," Biaggio said. "They don't always hold in individual cases. There are certain costs associated with the extremes of those behaviors.
"For men, the cost is that there is no opportunity for them to take responsibility and for them to change their functioning, with respect to anger," she said. "They may be losing an opportunity to take more control over their lives.
"The cost for women, in terms of blaming themselves, is a sense of guilt and taking too much unnecessary responsibility."
Phenomena of Victim Blame
Biaggio said it is important to know in general that men and women experience and deal with anger differently, in part to help better understand the phenomena of victim blame, especially in the area of sexual assault.
But how should one deal with anger in a more constructive fashion? Not, says Biaggio, by beating up on pillows or the like.
"There are a number of different strategies that can be utilized," she said. "People can be taught to engage in physical relaxation that can compensate for the physiological arousal that accompanies anger arousal.
"People can be taught to reframe or reappraise situations in which they feel provoked to anger," she said.
Despite the difference in ways they react to anger, the things that provoke anger among men and women are generally the same, Biaggio said.
"We found some differences and quite a few similarities," she said. "Men and women appear to become angry over many of the same kinds of provocations, although women are more likely to experience hurt.
"The results suggest that men are more likely to employ physical and verbal antagonism in the face of anger provocation and women may be more likely to passively consent," she said.
The differences appear to be fairly subtle she said, and often show up only in field studies, not ones done in a laboratory setting.
"It may be that in real life, women and men have different expectations and respond differently," she said.