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Anger as an evolved bargaining system: Empirical Tests

Researchers at the Center for Evolutionary Psychology have been investigating the design and evolved function of the emotion of anger, both theoretically and empirically.  They consider anger to be a behavior-regulating program that was built into the neural architecture of the human species over evolutionary time.  The key question is, why?

The new model—the recalibrational theory of angerproposes that anger (as an emotion program) was designed by natural selection to nonconsciously orchestrate the individual’s responses to interpersonal conflicts of interest so that the individual bargains effectively.  The functional product of the anger (if successful) is the recalibration upwards of the other person’s tendency to place weight on the angry person’s welfare.  The two bargaining tools humans have is the ability to confer or withhold benefits, and the ability to inflict costs.  The greater the benefits an individual controls, or the greater the costs the individual can inflict, the greater the bargaining position he or she has.  The theory predicts, and these studies find, that stronger men and more attractive women are more anger-prone, feel more entitled to better treatment, and prevail more in conflicts of interest.  They also more strongly endorse the use of force to resolve conflicts.  These results undermine theories that attribute anger and aggression primarily to frustration, a history of negative treatment, or a desire for equity.  According to this theory, strength and beauty are not unique:  anything that increases the social bargaining power of an individual should increase her or his anger-proneness and feeling of entitlement.  

The paper in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences is the first in a series on anger:

Formidability and the logic of human anger by Aaron Sell, John Tooby & Leda Cosmides, Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences August 2009.

ABSTRACT: Eleven predictions derived from the recalibrational theory of anger were tested. This theory proposes that anger is produced by a neurocognitive program engineered by natural selection to use bargaining tactics to resolve conflicts of interest in favor of the angry individual. The program is designed to orchestrate two interpersonal negotiating tactics (conditionally inflicting costs or conditionally withholding benefits) to incentivize the target of the anger to place greater weight on the welfare of the angry individual. Individuals with enhanced abilities to inflict costs (e.g., stronger individuals) or to confer benefits (e.g., attractive individuals) have a better bargaining position in conflicts; hence, it was predicted that such individuals will be more prone to anger, prevail more in conflicts of interest, and consider themselves entitled to better treatment. These predictions were confirmed. Consistent with an evolutionary analysis, the effect of strength on anger was greater for men and the effect of attractiveness on anger was greater for women. Also as predicted, stronger men had a greater history of fighting than weaker men, and more strongly endorsed the efficacy of force to resolve conflicts—both in interpersonal and international conflicts. The fact that stronger men favored greater use of military force in international conflicts provides evidence that the internal logic of the anger program reflects the ancestral payoffs characteristic of a small-scale social world rather than rational assessments of modern payoffs in large populations.

UCSB’s press release can be found here
Supplemental information here

New! The Sunday Times of London recently published a piece claiming that researchers at the CEP found a link between blonde hair in women and anger, entitlement and "warlike" behavior. No such research was done, and we believe the claims of the article are false. As can be seen by a search in our original publication (here) the words "blonde" or even "hair" never appear. Nevertheless, the story spread rapidly throughout the blogosphere and the mainstream news. We are working to correct the story. Click here to read our letter to the Times.
What we did do was research on the evolved function of anger, and its relationship to variables such as strength and attractiveness (much more interesting, and with facts behind it!).
Update! Accurate accounts of the story are now being reported here and here.

For more information, email: Dr. Aaron Sell sell@psych.ucsb.edu Professor John Tooby tooby@anth.ucsb.edu Professor Leda Cosmides cosmides@psych.ucsb.edu

This paper:

(1) provides a brief introduction to a new theory of anger: the recalibrational theory of anger. It characterizes the evolved function of anger and describes how some of the design features of the anger program carry out this evolved function.

(2) tests eleven predictions derived from the theory, including a functional explanation for individual differences in anger-proneness. 

(3) provides evidence that upper body strength is linked to beliefs and attitudes about the use of the military in international conflicts, indicating that at least some of our attitudes are set nonrationally.    

Earlier, related work provides evidence that humans have an evolved specialization for assessing fighting ability—formidability:  See Human adaptations for the visual assessment of strength and fighting ability from the body and face by Aaron Sell, Leda Cosmides, John Tooby, Daniel Sznycer, Christopher von Rueden, and Michael Gurven in Proceedings of the Royal Society London, (Biological Sciences), October 2008. Click here for more

These papers are part of a more encompassing research initiative that is intended to place the study of emotion and motivation on a new, more rigorous foundation.  The goal of this research is to produce detailed maps of the circuit logic of emotions and motivational systems, showing how the details of their problem-solving characteristics match the recurrent adaptive problems our ancestors faced.  This program formed the core of the joint proposal Leda Cosmides and John Tooby made to the NIH Director’s Pioneer Award program.  Discussions of this research program can be found in:

Tooby, J., Cosmides, L., Sell, A., Lieberman, D. & Sznycer, D.  (2008).  Internal regulatory variables and the design of human motivation: A computational and evolutionary approach.  In Andrew J. Elliot (Ed.) Handbook of approach and avoidance motivation.  pp. 251-271. Mahwah, NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum Associates

Tooby, J. & Cosmides, L. (2008). The evolutionary psychology of the emotions and their relationship to internal regulatory variables. In M. Lewis, J. M. Haviland-Jones & L. F. Barrett (Eds.), Handbook of Emotions, 3rd Ed. (pp. 114-137.) NY: Guilford.  This paper also summarizes the evolutionary psychological framework for analyzing emotions as circuits or programs. 

This page is intended to provide background on these studies for anyone who is curious about the research.  When the page is completed, it will also sketch out connections and implications for evolutionary biologists, emotion researchers, economists, cognitive neuroscientists, behavioral ecologists, evolutionary psychologists, social psychologists, anthropologists, political scientists, and others in the behavioral sciences. 

Scientific Background:

The role of regulatory variables in motivation
An evolutionary psychological approach to emotion

Relevance to different fields. (under construction)

Evolutionary biology:

Cognitive Science:

Cognitive Neuroscience:

Behavioral Economics:

Emotion research:

The study of motivation: