Anger an Invitation to Injurious Attack, Study Finds

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Does being angry put you at higher risk for getting injured?

In one way, yes–and it’s a way with great relevance for law enforcement.

Researchers at the University of Missouri-Columbia studied some 2,500 patients in 3 ERs and about 1,500 unharmed residents selected from the community at large to see what relationship, if any, exists between anger and injury.

Surprisingly, they found no significant correlation between being mad just before an incident and suffering injuries from a fall or a traffic accident (despite all the media hype about “dangerous” road rage). “But anger was strongly associated with intentional injuries inflicted by another person,” reports the team that conducted the surveys, Dr. Daniel Vinson and Vineesha Arelli.

The association was stronger in men than women, but applies to both sexes. Moreover, the angrier the subjects were on a scale ranging from “irritable” to “hostile,” the notably higher their likelihood of being hurt. [The full report of this study can be accessed at: www.annfammed.org/cgi/content/full/4/1/63]

The researchers didn’t explore details of the circumstances leading to the injuries but the clear assumption would be that the injured parties were in some volatile conflict in which an attack resulted, says Dr. Bill Lewinski, executive director of the Force Science Research Center at Minnesota State University-Mankato. And this, he says, “has tremendous relevance to law enforcement, where conflict is a common and often unavoidable part of the job.”

The study, he says, adds to the cumulative evidence that “angry cops are less effective on the street and a danger to themselves. When you’re angry, you may miss a lot of threat cues, you may not be able to put on the appropriate ‘face’ to bring about a favorable outcome in a confrontation, and, as this new study suggests, you may end up actually provoking an attack because you anger others with your angry behavior.”

Lewinski explains that there are 2 types of anger: what’s called “state anger,” an episode that occurs at a specified time, and “trait anger,” which is an on-going characteristic of personality. Both are evident among personnel on virtually any department. Indeed, LAW and ORDER Magazine recently devoted an article to the challenge and importance of supervisors dealing with angry officers who constitute “a danger to themselves, other officers and the public.” [See: “The Angry Police Officer,” by Capt. Robert Roy Johnson, Chicago PD, LAW and ORDER Magazine, June ’06. Call (800) 843-9764 or e-mail info@hendonpub.com for more information on this article.]

On rare occasions anger may be an asset on the street, Lewinski observes. Survivors of life-threatening attacks, particularly brutal physical assaults, often speak of summoning anger to fight back and to overcome their would-be killers, for example. Anger may also fuel gross motor actions like grappling with a resistant suspect or pushing heavy car wreckage out of the way. “But very few law enforcement situations actually require anger,” Lewinski states. “Most often it is destructive.”

Verbal Judo guru Dr. George Thompson, a member of FSRC’s Technical Advisory Board, teaches that one indication of your professionalism is your ability to put on the right “face” (expression of emotion) to get the outcome you desire in enforcement encounters, varying your emotional persona to fit the tactical needs of the situation. You might “put on” a display of state anger as a strategy for commanding attention and respect, influencing others or dominating an encounter in LIMITED circumstances; if not totally faked, such a show certainly is calculated and well controlled.

An impulsive, emotion-driven display of anger, on the other hand, is much different and the mark of an amateur in human relations. “An officer focused on and consumed by his or her anger is one-dimensional in interacting with others,” Lewinski explains. “He can’t put on other ‘faces’ and is not able to play the whole range of emotion that might be necessary on the street, so he ends up being less effective.”

He cites an officer of his acquaintance, an embodiment of trait anger, whose policing style is to “push people psychologically all the time, regardless of circumstances. They push back, so back and forth they’re punching each other’s buttons and escalating things. He makes a lot of arrests, but he’s in a lot of fights, injures a lot of people, and gets injured himself. He’s not only missing danger cues because he’s blinded by his anger, he’s provoking people to attack him.

“The more neutral you keep yourself emotionally, the more flexible you are. You’re more likely to be conscious of what’s going on around you and to respond with good decisions.”

He cites a study done 2 decades ago by researcher Dr. Jean Williams at the University of Arizona, exploring the role of “life stress” and athletic injuries in skillful, physically fit football players. She discovered a direct correlation between the emotional distress (including anger) that a player feels and the predictability for injury on the playing field. She concluded that emotional distress limits a subject’s ability to pay attention to and cope with fast-changing elements of a game and leads them to being blindsided, resulting in a higher rate of injury.

Lewinski says that Nigel Redman, internationally renowned rugby coach, has talked about relying on psychological profiling to identify those of his athletes who have the greatest ability to make correct decisions in the emotional, high-stress final moments of tight games. Those are the ones he plays, regardless of their overall performance skill, because they have the maturity to control their emotions under pressure and focus solely on what needs to be done to win.

There are parallels in a gunfight, Lewinski maintains. An officer in control of his emotions, including anger (and fear, as well), “can more likely put rounds where they need to go to end the threat, because his fine motor skills are intact.” An angry officer, in contrast, “just throws bullets at his attacker.” His fine motor skills have been eroded by his anger.

To deal with anger, Lewinski recommends the following:
  1. If you chronically feel angry or find yourself impulsively overreacting to situations on a routine basis, you need to talk to a counselor about what is happening in your personal and/or professional life that’s fueling your inappropriate emotions.
    “Most people in this situation can’t do therapy on themselves because their anger interferes with their honest reflection about what’s going on,” Lewinski says. “They blame other people for their condition and don’t understand the role they themselves are playing in their angry interactions.”
  2. If you are leaving an angry situation–say a fight at home before work or a call that has riled you up–try to take a breather, an “emotional time-out,” before going on to your next encounter. “Go for a cup of coffee, stop by a park and smell the roses, do some deep breathing. Reframe your mind.
    “Recognize that you are angry but also that you can stop it. Realize that you need to change what you’re thinking because you need to focus outward to be alert and prepared for your next call. Your emotions will match your focus; you are what you think.”
  3. If you feel yourself getting angry during an encounter, ask yourself: Is displaying your anger appropriate for this situation? Are you going to use anger as a “face” that will help you be firm and set limits for a person you’re dealing with, or is some street-smart subject trying to sucker you into losing control?
    “If your anger is escalating a situation toward a place you don’t want to be, then rein it in and use other tactics to control the encounter. Remember: angry cops are vulnerable to being victimized and exploited. The enraged officer who’s thinking, ‘Boy, I’m really putting this asshole in his place’ usually ends up losing.”

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