31 May 2022

Anger as adaptation to demeaning offenses

Posted by jofr

Anger can be destructive. In modern life and at work getting angry is normally avoided, for good reasons. It can be destructive and corrosive for social groups. Positive emotions like love are cherished, negative ones like anger are frowned upon. Yet both are rooted in our biological nature.

John Tooby and his wife Leda Cosmides who are known for their work in pioneering the field of evolutionary psychology [1] have argued that anger can have benefits too: anger in general has for selfish individuals like us the benefit of helping to remove obstacles that reduce the ability to reach our goals and therefore our fitness [2]. In a social context – and usually we are always in some kind of social group – it has the benefit to enhance our bargaining power. By showing our strength and threatening to inflict costs or withholding benefits anger allows cost effective bargaining for better treatment by our adversaries. Tooby and Cosmides call this the recalibrational theory of anger [3].

Anger is often triggered by demeaning offenses against oneself which happen behind our back, by secret intrigues that violate our status in the social hierarchy. Clearly mechanisms to eliminate socially demeaning offenses increase the fitness of social animals. By raising our voice anger draws the attention of the group to the adversary and helps to uncover secret intrigues. By showing our status or strength to others it reminds others of fair behavior. By making threats anger helps to ward off demeaning offenses against ourselves. It helps to bring unfair social behavior to light, just as moral outrage helps to uncover defection.

Thus as bad as bad feelings and negative emotions might be, bad feelings can be good for us too: fear helps to avoid dangers, disgust helps to expell dangerous substances, pain tells us to avoid movement in order to prevent further damage. And anger helps to reduce or eliminate socially demeaning offenses. Emotions have a purpose, and their purpose is to fullfill the primary directive of our genes. For biological organisms, animals and royal families the primary directive means “survive! and reproduce!”. Emotions are the control mechnanism used by the genes to control their survival vehicles.

Myisha Cherry even argues (Cherry, 2021) that anger does not deserve its bad reputation at all because it can help to reduce (racial) injustice, which would be a good thing. She says anti-racist anger could help to reduce racism. I am not sure if I agree, but the mechanism which triggers anger here is the same: a demeaning offense.


[1] Jerome H. Barkow, Ledea Cosmides, John Tooby (Eds.),
The adapted mind: Evolutionary psychology and the generation of culture
1992, Oxford University Press

[2] John Tooby & Leda Cosmides, Groups in Mind: The Coalitional
Roots of War and Morality (2010). Chapter 8 in “Human Morality and Sociality:
Evolutionary and Comparative Perspectives” edited by Henrik Høgh-Olesen,
Palgrave MacMillan, 2010

[3] Aaron Sell, John Tooby & Leda Cosmides, Formidability and the logic of human anger,
Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences (PNAS) August 2009.

[4] Myisha Cherry, The Case for Rage: Why Anger Is Essential to Anti-Racist Struggle, Oxford University Press, 2021

( Unsplash image of two angry bisons from Uriel Soberanes )

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One Response to “Anger as adaptation to demeaning offenses”

  1. […] and obviously increases reproductive success, while outrage helps to reveal defectors and anger prepares for vigorous action to prevent damage by offenses. Interestingly very similar adaptations […]


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