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Are We Raging Out of Control?

Almost everyone feels intense anger at times, but most people have internal stoplights. Those who don't, researchers find, may have faulty brain 'wiring.'

August 06, 2000|MARY McNAMARA | TIMES STAFF WRITER

After arguing over a beeped horn, one man runs another down and drags him to death in Santa Monica. In Massachusetts, one father beats another to death after a kids' pickup hockey game. And airline workers in 100 cities declare "a day of action" to protest increasing abuse by aggressive passengers.

Road rage, air rage, sports rage. During the past several years, people have begun ascribing random acts of violence to a larger trend--a perceived growing level of underlying social anger. According to conventional wisdom, the nation is in the midst of a rage epidemic, a nation driven by increased population and a fast-paced lifestyle to a permanent boiling point. Raised voices and obscene gestures have ever been part of American discourse, but now we watch each other warily, in case the overheard employer's slight or the tailgater is the final incident that will push the fellow next to us into homicidal fury.

Yet while the anecdotal evidence seems to mount, the statistics do not. According to the FBI, violent crime--which includes assault and murder--has been steadily declining for almost 10 years.

Obviously, not all violent crime involves rage, and all rage does not lead to violent crime. Researchers agree that social context is a major factor in any episode of violent rage. But there is not a clinical definition for rage, no clear-cut threshold between it and anger. Rage is an emotion, and emotions are difficult to pin down biologically. In post-Columbine America, however, the scientific community has been pressed from all sides to explain the causes of violence. And several recent studies point to a biological commonality among people unable to control their emotions--which seems to indicate that the image of a previously nonviolent person suddenly snapping into enraged violence is probably more myth than reality.

Although what people fear from this seeming escalation of rage is the drawn gun, the murderous assault, the term "rage" is used to describe a wide variety of behaviors, from poor driving to sharp-tongued impatience to true homicidal fury. There is a difference between one motorist giving another the finger and someone intentionally running over and killing the man who just honked at him, yet "rage" is often used to describe both scenarios.

"There is a general language escalation in our culture," says social psychologist Carol Tavris, author of "Anger: the Misunderstood Emotion" (Touchstone, 1989). "So first you have to get rid of the hyperbole and define the category."

According to Webster's New World Dictionary, rage is akin to the Latin term rabere, to rave or be mad. The first definition is "insanity," the second "a furious uncontrolled anger." A notable difference, since most psychologists do not consider anger, even a furious anger, a mental illness in and of itself. Everyone is capable of feeling rage; the differences are in how people respond to that feeling.

"Anger is a psychobiological emotional state that varies from irritation to rage," says Charles Spielberger, a research professor at the University of South Florida and past president of the American Psychological Assn. "But it's important to remember that anger is not a bad thing. It's there to provide a signal that something is going wrong, that we should do something, whether it be leaving a situation or using assertive behavior."

As with fear, the physiology of anger cannot be completely explained in a step-by-step biological way. Scientists do not know why, for example, certain stimuli trigger anger in one person and not in another. But, according to Spielberger, anger involves fairly specific activity in the autonomic nervous system, including increased secretion of hormones that "prepare a human or animal for fight or flight."

This chemical bath creates the physical symptoms of anger--the increased heart rate, deep breathing, raised agitation level and increased body temperature. But these symptoms are, to a certain extent, self-propelling. In studies of facial expressions and muscle activity, researchers have found that people directed to make an angry face experienced many of the actual symptoms of anger, even though they had nothing to be angry about. Similarly, contrary to the modern belief that venting anger is a good release, researchers found that yelling or gesturing actually increases the symptoms of anger.

So in most cases, rage is an anger level a person builds to, rather than a sudden flash or breakdown.

Feeling anger, or even rage, Spielberger says, is very different from how an individual expresses it; one is an emotion, the other a behavior. "There are two types of anger," he explains, "anger in or anger out. I would consider rage intense anger expressed out."

Anger Does Not Always Lead to Loss of Control

According to Tavris, most social scientists use three categories to explain the behavior most people tend to lump under the word "rage"--anger, hostility and aggression.

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