How not to get angry

It is commonplace to bemoan the gradual slide of Western politics into mud-slinging and fear tactics, to complain about trolls and the general level of vitriol, to worry that we live in a world where anger gains a new level of respectability.

I’m going to make the case that anger is enabled and exacerbated by a somewhat complex mental phenomenon which pervades all human culture. The best name we might give this phenomenon is essentialism, and it’s tricky to explain. Of course, if I’m to convince you of my idea, I’ll have to explain my conception of essentialism, so hold on tight. I’ll try to make the ride short and fun if I can…

A dog runs into a room, bumps into a chair, and the chair falls over. If asked to describe the cause of the noise, we might say the chair fell over and made a cracking sound as it hit the floor. If asked the cause of the chair falling over, we might say the dog bumped into it. If asked the cause of the dog bumping into the chair, there’s a fair chance that we might say ‘oh, Fido’s always doing things like that’. Sometimes we might continue down the chain of causes: ‘Fido is scared of the vaccuum, and he was running away from it.’ Often, though, we’ll be happy to stop the causal chain at Fido. He’s of a playful breed. He’s always getting up to mischief.

A picture falls off the wall, quite spontaneously, and smashes on the floor. Timmy, a curious toddler asks us why the glass smashed. ‘Because the picture hit the floor so hard.’ Timmy now wants to know why it fell off the wall. We look up, and see evidence of sloppy handiwork. ‘Because Toni didn’t fix it to the wall properly.’ And now, why, Timmy wants to know, did Toni not fix it to the wall properly? ‘Toni’s sloppy and lazy when it comes to anything like this. That’s why sweetie.’ It Timmy persists and asks why Toni is sloppy and lazy, he’s quite likely to get a rebuff, ‘That’s just how Toni is!’

This kind of thinking used to be more prevalent. The earliest religions held that certain everyday phenomena were in fact gods. They were alive. Some cultures had gods of rain, many had gods of thunder, and so on. The god of thunder was usually angry. We can imagine how this sort of thing gets started. The co-occurence of loud agressive displays by someone (or something) else, and fear in ourselves, is usually because they’re angry with us. So the loud bangs and flashes, and sometimes even trees being struck down in the vicinity was because there was something nearby that was angry.

As time and human culture progressed, many groups did away with their many gods and united them into a single godhead. (You might wonder whether there’s evidence of this process, and there is. ‘Elohim’ is the name of the Judaeo-Christian god in the Old Testament, and Elohim, in Hebrew, is grammatically plural.) A good many religious believers around the world today are willing to ascribe almost any phenomenon to the will of god.

The creation of a god of thunder and explaining that a flood happened because of an ‘act of god’ may seem like very different types of thinking from the first two examples, where Fido and Toni were held to be responsible. I’d argue that they’re exactly the same type of thinking. In each case, we’re happy to seek causes, and then seek causes of those causes, and then to seek causes even of those causes, and so on, until we get to something we consider to be a locus of angecy. Fido is alive, and therefore in control of his own actions. Toni has free will. Gods are all powerful. We don’t always stop once we reach an active agent, but we very often do. We might decide that it’s important to take into account that Toni was being rushed by someone else whilst putting up the picture. We might explain Fido’s behaviour by way of the effect of terrifying vaccuum cleaners. But often, oh so often, we don’t go there. We stop. Toni did it, because of the kind of person Toni is. Fido did it, becuase of the kind of dog Fido is.

This is what I mean by essentialism. (This is not philosophical essentialism, but it’s not entirely dissimilar. I seem to remember that Medin called it psychological essentialism, though I’m not sure my own definition agrees entirely.) Complex things happen in the real world, things we see and feel and hear. From these many, slightly different examples, we draw an abstract idea, we construct a Platonic ideal, a template in our heads. And sometimes, if the circumstances are right, we go so far as to ascribe agency to the thing. We cease to see something as part of a larger whole, but we see it as the prima causa.

We seem to have a profound cognitive bias toward this kind of essentialism. That’s probably because it’s a useful heuristic, a handy rule of thumb. My guess is that our brains have to do less work to spot the signs of ‘an agressive person’ and act appropriately, than they would have to do to spot the signs of ‘a person whose history might have reinforced in him a tendency for violence’. Most of our cognitive biases seem to fall from the same mould. They evolved because they’re useful, but they also have a dark side of which a wise person should be aware.

Scientists regularly conduct studies designed to ascribe cause to complex patterns of behaviour. For instance, they’ve asked many times, and in many ways, how important are genetic influences compared with up-bringing in the development of antisocial behaviour. The answers tend to come out that upbringing is about one and a half times more important than genetic inheritence. That’s to say, three-fifths of the influences are from outside the person’s skin. For many behaviours, the environmental influence is much greater still.

So when someone is rude to us on the street, cuts in front as we go to get onto the train, or swears loudly whilst we’re enjoying a quite moment on a park bench, perhaps we should seek, at least three times out of five, to consider what the causes might be, further back in the causal chain. Let’s not stop with ‘he’s a bum,’ or ‘she’s so self-important,’ or ‘typical man,’ but instead, let’s imagine the many experiences that might have happened in that person’s path to have led to the development of that behaviour. Perhaps he had an alcoholic parent and never was sent to school. Perhaps an air of self-importance is the only way she gets to be heard in the agressive office culture she’s worked in for twenty years. Perhaps he grew up at a time when casual chauvinism was encouraged in young men.

Seeking the causes of behaviour, outside the individual, does nothing to make a certain behaviour morally right. Chauvinism doesn’t get a pass because it comes from someone who grew up in a chauvinistic society. We can seek to encourage better behaviour in others, without the false assumption that everything they do is merely their uninfluenced choice.

Last time you were rude to someone, why did you do it? Was it because you’re a rude person, or because there was some exculpating factor? I thought so. We owe it to the rest of the world to examine other people’s behaviour the same way we examine our own. In doing so, we’ll also save ourselves a lot of high blood pressure.


[I’m quite aware that my own definition of essentialism is sloppy. This is a practical idea, not one that’s intended to have philosophical and scientific precision.]