Anger Can Help Us Achieve Challenging Goals - Ideas for Leaders
Idea #876

Anger Can Help Us Achieve Challenging Goals

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Photo by Road Trip with Raj on Unsplash
Photo by Road Trip with Raj on Unsplash


A series of experiments reveal the power of anger to increase our efforts in achieving challenging goals. The study involves intrapersonal or “self” anger, as opposed to anger involving other people.


According to numerous social science theories. emotions arise based on the discrepancies between what we want and what we have. If we have or achieve what we want, then we feel positive emotions for example, if our favorite sports team wins an important game. If, on the other hand, we don’t achieve or don’t have what we want or what we desire, we feel negative emotions as when our favorite sports team loses an important game.

The appearance of emotions, according to these theories, leads to changes in what we are thinking, experiencing, and feeling, and how we behave. Continuing with our sports example, we will feel joy and cheer loudly when our team wins, feel tense, and shout or sulk when our team loses.

However, emotions, whether positive or negative, don’t just make us feel good or bad, respectively; they also help us achieve the outcomes that we want or need to achieve. In other words, emotions have a function a hypothesis that gives its name to these theories, which are known as “functional accounts of emotions” theories.

A study focused on the emotion of anger specifically empirically supports seven experiments on this functional hypothesis of emotions. The study illustrates that anger motivates us to take action and expend more effort to overcome or resolve challenges blocking the path to our goals.

In one experiment, for example, participants were assigned to different emotional conditions (anger, amusement, desire, sadness, and neutral). After watching a slide show designed to arouse the specific emotion to which they were assigned, the participants were given a series of anagrams (words with the letters jumbled) to solve. Angry participants solved more anagrams than the participants in the neutral or other emotional conditions.

In another experiment, participants were conditioned to feel certain emotions, as in study 1, and were then asked to play two video ski games: a slalom around flags, which was scored based on time with time penalties for every flag hit; and a ski jump game, with scores based on distance of the jump. Each game had target scores to attempt to achieve. The slalom was difficult, but the ski jump, easy. For the ski jump, being angry made no difference. However, for the slalom, the angry participants achieved the highest scores.

In another experiment, the anger was elicited not by images but by the task itself. The experiment involved a video task to hit targets before they disappeared from the screen. If the participants hit the targets, they won money; if not, they lost money. All participants went through three blocks of 20 attempts to hit the targets: a success block, in which targets stayed on the screen long enough to be hit; a success with incentive block, in which targets stayed even longer on the screen and participants were told they could double their money; and an anger block in which the targets disappeared quickly from the screen. Participant emotions were measured after each block. This experiment also showed that the angrier participants were the more successful participants. The results across all experiments were consistent: anger helped overcome challenges when the challenges were difficult. Anger had no influence on the outcome in the face of easy challenges (such as the ski jump task). It should be noted that in two of the experiments, amusement (and in one of those experiments desire as well) also seemed to spur participants to achieve goals although not at the same level as anger.


The results of this study present an interesting dilemma for leaders and managers. The general consensus is that happier employees make better employees. As multiple studies of toxic bosses demonstrate, angry employees are more likely to be less productive (and to seek another job) than satisfied employees. The context of this study, however, is specific to achieving challenging goals, motivated by anger that is not aimed at other individuals. The argument is that anger in response to the level of the challenge (as with the quickly disappearing targets) can be productive.

The researchers also emphasize that while their study reveals the benefit of negative emotion, it is a mix of positive and negative emotions (as opposed to only positive goals, as often assumed) that is probably most effective in helping people to be successful. In such a context, leaders might motivate individuals to increase their efforts in achieving their goals by arousing a moderate level of self-anger perhaps with phrases such as, “I know you can do better,” or “We have failed in the past, we will not fail again.” While eliciting motivating (as opposed to destructive) anger is no easy leadership feat, the result can be individuals and teams eventually celebrating the conquest of a highly challenging goal.



Heather Lench’s profile at Texas A&M

Noah Reed’s profile at personal website

Tiffany George’s profile at Texas A&M University

Kaitlyn Kaiser’s profile at LinkedIn

Sophia North’s profile at LinkedIn


Anger Has Benefits for Attaining Goals. Heather C. Lench, Noah T. Reed, Tiffany George, Kaitlyn A. Kaiser, and Sophia G. North. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology: Attitudes and Social Cognition (October 2023).

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Idea conceived

January 25, 2024

Idea posted

Mar 2024
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