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Anger and the Erosion of Curiosity

When I’m angry, I can’t think straight.

When in a disturbed state, I get tangled up in judgments and my positions become more rigid. I want to defend, I want to retaliate, I want to win, and my interest in learning evaporates.

Somehow, I operate out of a fantasy that because I’m angry, I must be right.

Apparently, I’m not alone in that delusion.

The world’s most respected neuroscientists say that prolonged stress exposure causes architectural changes in our ability to think, and even mild, uncontrollable stress can cause a rapid and dramatic loss of cognitive ability.

One sign of such brain dysfunction is certitude without exploration.

This connection between stress and ignorance carries lots of implications. One of the least talked about is anger.

Simply put, when we’re ticked off, reasonableness and wonder disappear.

One of the most predictable and unfortunate casualties of anger is the erosion of curiosity.

This happens whether the anger is justified or not.

Take a look at your own anger responses and notice, when you’re fuming, how little interest you have in understanding the person or circumstance that triggers your irritation.

That same absence of curiosity infects the wider culture.

On pressing issues such as the appointment of federal judges, climate change, racial equity, global trade, and what constitutes moral decency, you’ll notice a general climate of anger and intolerance, glaringly devoid of curiosity.

What’s frightening to consider is the possibility that we have a nation of leaders who are so angry and reactive – and so sure they are right – that they can’t make sound decisions. Their chronic unreasonableness leaves them unable to understand others.

To make matters worse, anger sells. We’re drawn to strong expressions of rage.

A headline that reads, “The Decision-Maker is Fighting Mad,” simply gets more hits than one announcing, “The Decision-Maker is Happy as a Clam.”

How can we better tame anger in our daily lives?

Let me suggest three thoughts and corresponding questions for your consideration.

First, parents and leaders are more susceptible to anger in times (like now) of heightened societal stress. That means we probably need a “time out” just like small children sometimes do. When we are tied up in knots, are we any more rational than a kid in a tantrum?

What kind of “time out” habits are you building into your life?

Second, when angry, we’re usually operating with information deficits. We rarely have the whole story and even the part we’re sure of smacks of fiction. Becoming more curious about who or what angers us helps us reduce blind spots about others and fill in the data gaps.

What sincerely curious questions do you have for the person you are angry at?

Third, anger reduces wonder and awe. While enraged, we forget our own smallness and become blind to the beauty around us. We lose perspective and stray from the gratitude that keeps us sound.

Anger can be regulated by any discipline that brings perspective.

What are the perspective routines you use to stay centered and calm?

The bottom line? If we can rein in anger, we can think more clearly about what makes sense. That would be good news for families, institutions, businesses, and nations.


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