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Anger Management: In Vogue, but Effective?

May 28, 2000|From Newsday

UNIONDALE, N.Y. — In Room 114 of a Hofstra University community center, two men are seated face to face, one quietly holding a 3-by-5 index card, the other spewing the worst possible invective.

A hellish workplace argument?

No, it's part of the university's research into the effectiveness of anger management training. For years, experts have been trying to determine whether such programs work, but there are no reliable statistics on success and failure. Now, Merry E. McVey, a doctoral candidate in clinical psychology at Hofstra, hopes to use social science to help answer the question.

"Anger management" is in vogue these days as judges and probation officers experiment with alternate sentencing as a means of rehabilitation instead of punishment, mostly for first-time offenders interested in avoiding prison.

Some academic researchers and women's rights groups criticize such programs, which they say are based on the false premise that batterers and other violent offenders are "victims" of their own tempers.

"We have been very suspect about anger management," echoed Edward Gondolf, associate director of research for the Mid-Atlantic Addiction Training Institute at Indiana University of Pennsylvania. Such programs, he said, offer participants the "illusion" that they can alter their behavior without substantial change in attitude.

"This isn't to say a daylong program is not a good start," Gondolf said. "But it takes more of an effort."

McVey said, "For a lot of people, coping strategies go out the window, because they are not thinking rationally when anger hits. Our goal is to help them not get angry in response to things they run into every day in the first place.

"If this approach is successful, it would prove that anger management can work by helping people learn to master their behavior," she said.

Today, everyone from run-of-the-mill "problem employees" to out-of-control celebrities are being taught how to sit down, shut up and count to 10. In addition to music mogul Sean "Puffy" Combs and rapper Ol' Dirty Bastard, the list of anger-management alums nationally includes actress Shannen Doherty, boxer Mike Tyson, soul singer Bobby Brown, basketball's Latrell Sprewell and Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, and rock's Courtney Love and Tommy Lee.

"We don't pretend that we can solve everyone's behavior problem in one day," said Robyn Schneider, division director of Hempstead, N.Y.-based Education and Assistance Corp. "The goal is to give people tools and strategies to handle their problems in real situations." She said 1,700 people have been through EAC's program in the last 18 months.

*

So far, 36 men ages 21 to 55 have volunteered for McVey's study.

McVey initially eliminates anyone with poor control, psychotic episodes or substance abuse. Then she determines which 40 words, phrases, situations or gestures arouse feelings of intense anger in each man.

During a subject's next appointment, he is brought into the office, told to remain seated and, in some cases, given an index card listing four standard verbal responses he is allowed to use in the coming exercise.

Then over the next three hours, one of McVey's assistants--sitting 18 inches away and armed with the "anger list"--does everything possible, short of physical assault, to push the participant's buttons. The therapists flay the participants for being too fat or too thin, sounding stupid or driving the wrong car. Race, religion and being bad in bed usually come up.

During breaks, participants fill out a Subjective Units of Distress scale--a sort of emotional thermometer--to assess their levels of anger. After a "cool out" period, participants are free to leave. "No one is allowed to leave angry," McVey said.

The researchers say several common themes run through their participants' anger.

The men are typically set off by traffic, marital conflicts stemming from the high cost of living, rudeness encountered in everyday interactions, and the derisive comments of co-workers and supervisors.

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