How do you study anger? Make someone mad, really mad, but very carefully.
Researchers at Ohio State University were well aware that provoking someone to anger in the name of research has an ethical edge, but they were eager to test a relatively new theory on anger management called "self-distancing."
Rather than counting to 10 to let our emotions cool following a confrontation, as we have been told so often in recent years, back off and view yourself as a third person. Thinking of yourself as an observer, not a participant, is a relatively simple way to ease anger and aggression when provoked by someone else, according to the research.
"Be a fly on the wall," Dominik Mischkowski, a graduate psychology student at Ohio State and lead author of a new study in the Journal of Experimental Social Psychology, said in a telephone interview.
Mischkowski, who is nearing completion of his doctoral work, said two experiments conducted on the Columbus campus showed that it's easy to detach yourself and view a hostile confrontation in a frame of mind that facilitates a rational settlement.
"It sounds a little difficult, but actually it's easy to do and people are really good at it," he added. Detaching oneself and coolly backing away from a potentially violent situation may sound more like wishful thinking than hard science, but he says his research backs him up.
However, before he could reach that conclusion, he had to make some of his fellow students really angry.
He recruited 180 students to take part in two experiments, and agreed to pay them $8, a paltry sum perhaps, but not necessarily to a college student these days. The students were told a fib, a common tactic in psychological research, so they thought the experiments involved the effects of music on problem solving, creativity and emotions. But the tests were really about anger, or how to handle it.
The participants were told to arrange a series of letters into words as classical music played loudly in the background. They were to do that 14 times and they had seven seconds to complete each word, so they had to concentrate on what they were doing. After completing each word, they were to read it aloud to an unseen moderator.
After the fourth word, the moderator bellowed through a loud speaker: "Look, I can barely hear you, I need you to speak louder please."
After the eighth word: "Hey, I still need you to speak louder please!"
And after the 12th word, the monitor said in an "extremely frustrated tone: Look, this is the third time I have to say this. Can't you follow directions? Speak louder!"
Was it enough to make them mad?
"They got pretty pissed off," Mischkowski said. "They were really, really annoyed."
Some got up and marched out, but Mischkowski pursued them to explain what the experiment was really about. Some were angry enough to complain to the university's ethics board. But generally, most took it all in stride, especially those who "self-distanced" themselves from the confrontation.
Anger Management: New Approach Suggested by Test
Participants were divided into three groups. Some were told to back off from emotions that could arise as they reflected on the tests -- "self-distance" themselves from the encounter. Others had been told to "immerse themselves" in the encounter as they tried to deal directly with what had transpired. Participants in the third group were given no directions.
As expected, the students who backed off and saw themselves in the distance, like a third person, showed considerably less anger and aggression than the other two groups. Taking a broader perspective, like that fly on the wall, defused the anger arising from the interruptions.
That's a much better way of dealing with aggression than focusing on your own feelings and trying to understand them, Brad Bushman, co-author of the study and professor of communication at Ohio State, said in releasing the study.
"If you focus too much on how you're feeling, it usually backfires," Bushman said. "It keeps the aggressive thoughts and feelings active in your mind, which makes it more likely that you'll act aggressively."
Ruminating about the confrontation while counting to 10 may be the worst medicine, according to other studies. The better course, according to this research, is to distance yourself from the scene.
Would this tactic help avoid some of the tragic headlines we see every day about minor disputes becoming major conflicts, leading too often to deadly force? Hard to say, and even Mischkowski concedes he doesn't have the data yet to say that.
But he has a hunch, based on what research is available, that it could.
"We find in general that the more serious the emotion is, the more this works," he said. "The more emotional people are, the more they need to cool down."
He was asked if he uses this technique himself when someone cuts him off on the freeway.
"I do it all the time and It's really helpful," he said. "I watch myself from a distance, and I see it from a different angle."
And he said he's sorry he had to make so many of his fellow students really angry.
"We really needed to piss them off, but on the other hand, it's not a good thing that we did to them," he said. "We asked them questions after the study and found that people got pretty mad."
Of course, they know now that all they have to do is be a fly on the wall.