The Speed of Rage

English: A raging face.

(Photo credit: Wikipedia)

The rise of social media has created an entire new world for social researchers. One focus of the research has been on determining how quickly and broadly emotions spread online. The April 2014 issue of the Smithsonian featured and article on this subject by Matthew Shaer.

Not surprisingly, researchers at Beijing University found that the emotion of rage spread the fastest and farthest online. Researchers in the United States found that anger was a speed leader, but not the fastest in the study: awe was even faster than rage. But rage was quite fast. As might be expected, sadness was a slow spreader and had a limited expansion.

This research certainly makes sense—rage tends to be a strong motivator and sadness tends to be a de-motivator. The power of awe was an interesting finding, but some reflection does indicate that this would make sense—the emotion tends to move people to want to share (in the real world, think of people eagerly drawing the attention of strangers to things like beautiful sunsets, impressive feats or majestic animals).

In general, awe is a positive emotion and hence it seems to be a good thing that it travels far and wide on the internet. Rage is, however, something of a mixed bag.

When people share their rage via social media, they are sharing with an intent to express (“I am angry!”) and to infect others with this rage (“you should be angry, too!”). Rage, like many infectious agents, also has the effect of weakening the host’s “immune system.” In the case of anger, the immune system is reason and emotional control. As such, rage tends to suppress reason and lower emotional control. This serves to make people even more vulnerable to rage and quite susceptible to the classic fallacy of appeal to anger—this is the fallacy in which a person accepts her anger as proof that a claim is true. Roughly put, the person “reasons” like this: “this makes me angry, so it is true.” This infection also renders people susceptible to related emotions (and fallacies), such as fear (and appeal to force).

Because of these qualities of anger, it is easy for untrue claims to be accepted far and wide via the internet. This is, obviously enough, the negative side of anger.  Anger can also be positive—to use an analogy, it can be like a cleansing fire that sweeps away brambles and refuse.

For anger to be a positive factor, it would need to be a virtuous anger (to follow Aristotle). Put a bit simply, it would need to be the right degree of anger, felt for the right reasons and directed at the right target. This sort of anger can mobilize people to do good. For example, people might learn of a specific corruption rotting away their society and be moved to act against it. As another example, people might learn of an injustice and be mobilized to fight against it.

The challenge is, of course, to distinguish between warranted and unwarranted anger. This is a rather serious challenge—as noted above, people tend to feel that they are right because they are angry rather than inquiring as to whether their rage is justified or not.

So, when you see a post or Tweet that moves you anger, think before adding fuel to the fire of anger.


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  1. I think we can relate this phenomenon to survival value. Anger relates to the instinct of combat. Thus something which makes us feel threatened can stimulate the instinct of combat, aggression, pugnacity. We accordingly want to tell our con-specifics there is something out there which may be threatening.
    The emotion of Awe relates to the instinct of curiosity and obviously the more we know about a state of affairs which is not in our common knowledge, the better may be our chances of survival. Obviously knowing about a change in the environment is important for future survival. In view of this it seems to me not surprising that Awe travels somewhat better on the net than anger. Sadness which I think relates to a social or gregarious instinct does not convey with it much in the way of survival value and accordingly has a limited expansion.

  2. Doris Wrench Eisler

    It isn’t clear whether the rage or anger spreads or infects like a yawn – or laughter, in some cases – or whether the reason or subject matter behind it is the actual mechanism because the reaction is based on a sense of common decency, fairness, justice, etc, and is thus compelled by empathy and intellect. My guess would have been that most people fear anger and the issues that fuel it, because it disturbs their equanimity, sense of well-being, etc., and they shut it out automatically. Exceptions would be people who are chronically angry and resentfulI. Many people find anger ugly, but I think it depends on the type and justification. I find it strange for instance, that some crime or disaster witnesses can actually smile when interviewed, and be as personable as all get-out. I haven’t found it easy to “light fires” with human rights issues I find important, so I find this study interesting, if somewhat hard to believe.

  3. Hope has two beautiful daughters; their names are Anger and Courage. Anger at the way things are, and Courage to see that they do not remain as they are. – Augustine

    It can be difficult to know with so much misdirection. When Mohamed Bouazizi, the Tunisian fruit seller, self-immolated, the western media presented his protest as a hunger for “freedom” and “democracy”. It wasn’t. It was protest at the systemic economic inequalities, that had seen people like Bouazizi’s standard of living fall, and for their lives to become more desperate. It’s the same system that has impacted the lives of the followers of the Tea Party, and is at the root of their anger though they’re only barely aware of it. And the same system that has had 60,000 child refugees crossing the Mexican border to the US since the start of the year. The same system that has doubled the value of the stock markets in the last four years, doubling the wealth of the richest 1% – while everyone else has become poorer. Did the rich do anything to earn that money…No, the Fed printed it and literally hand it out to them. Essential to the ideology, is that the strategy impoverishes the masses, for the benefit of the minority.

    There’s an interesting interview with GW Bush on the Hoover Institute’s Youtube channel. This is a recent interview. He says politics has completely changed, because of blogs and things like Twitter. The powerful are losing, or possibly they have already lost, their ability to control the presentation of reality. Even more peculiar is the right, who could be depended upon to unquestioningly back the plutocrats, are beginning to say things you’d really only expect to hear from Occupy.

  4. s. wallerstein

    Lots of people seem to enjoy being angry (or indignant) and not many enjoy being sad, so it would make sense that anger spreads more rapidly than sadness.

    There might be physiological reasons why people enjoy being angry. Anger is an excellent anti-depressant medication: he or she who is angry forgets their woes. I’m sure that others can explain the biochemistry of that process.

    What’s more, people who are indignant feel morally superior to those whom they are indignant about and we all enjoy feeling superior to others: moral superiority seems to produce very intense and long-lasting pleasure.

    Anger also binds people to others in a collective process, thus combating loneliness. There’s no feeling of togetherness more satisfying than an indignant lynch mob about to hang a dangerous heretic or sinner.

  5. “Anger also binds people to others in a collective process, thus combating loneliness. There’s no feeling of togetherness more satisfying than an indignant lynch mob about to hang a dangerous heretic or sinner.”

    The purpose of the Two Minutes Hate, in Orwell’s 1984, is to bind people and misdirect their anger at the conditions of their own lives, to that of the chosen target of the elites.

    The objectives of the powerful are to alienate those they wish to control, both from their material interests and crucially; from each other. And that is the engineered poverty and loneliness, of 1984.

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  8. 😛 😀 😎 😆 ➡ very interesting essay, from a true expert philosopher. Wow, ehm: AWE(SOME), thanks you so much. I am a student, still in that eternal learning *mode*. Only yesterday I noticed an article on a blog I subscribe to(in a feed)& *wow* it caught my eye. The blog is all about health/natural etc. but the article had 100% nothing to do with this. What is going on there, I thought, why did they have someone upload such a ridiculous story. Well I thought uploading my polite comment..if they do not publish, its decision maker(s) may be able to read between the lines that at least one subscriber noticed.
    But reading immediately afterwards this great article made me HAPPY. I just LOVE someone who can write like Mike LaBossiere. Thank you

  9. Hello again: still on the subject of *anger*, rage, awe: a lot has changed since I last read Mike LaBossiere’s article, namely: according to the recent information *out*: an Ukrainian
    Rebel Leader & his *men* DECİDED in cold blood to shoot down an airplane with inside over 250 persons many on their way for a lovely exotic holiday.
    I am particularly devastated because I am a DUTCH citizen, therefore it concerns ME that such a ghastly disaster happened.
    However & for what it is worth to also great philosophers, the world’s THINKERS: I, as a metaphysical worker, TODAY received the entire !! Universe’s message: now that omnipotent entity (I call it that)has really had enough. I know, because also I and millions of other INNOCENT global inhabitants alike feel, think exactly the same: such MURDERERS have to be eliminated, once and for all. HOW The Universe shall proceed to start effectuating it: as in God’s ways being mysterious: also I do not know (yet.
    Others,specially metaphysical experts, even the *ghosts* of good old Plato, Socrates shall be *following* (really)the exact orders the Universe is *pulsating* out & through = as long as one human has a heartbeat, a *pulse*, and is still breathing: the Universe at all times = our *messenger* and has been since its creation.
    Note: The good news is: through the modern facilities everyone these days is provided with the most advanced information 24/7, but also about HOW to cope as one individual when it comes to HEALTH i.e. MENS SANA e CORPORE SANO (a healthy brain IN a healthy body). Yes RAGE as a contaminating monstrous being = dangerous, however: when GOD i.e. The Universe has had it: we just have to follow *the leader* & perform.

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