As Carol Tavris writes in her landmark work “there does not seem to be a clear understanding of the phenomena we call Anger” (Tavris, 1989). She continues “the harder we try to pin down one explanation the more certain we are to fail.” She argues, “Anger is like beauty, as it is in the eye of the beholder”.

It is not anger that poses a problem. Anger is a normal emotion. It signals when one is in pain or is experiencing some manner of discomfort. The problem becomes when the behavior associated with anger becomes excessive or destructive. When the behavior is far beyond the stimulus we then become concerned. This is typically called rage or destructive anger. Hence this paper focuses on rage or destructive anger.

I would argue the potential damaging effects of rage warrant a clear theoretical conceptualization to guide the sufferer, and possibly the clinician, towards addressing the phenomena. The harm of rage exists because to date there is no clear understanding of rage. This needs to change.

There is no shortage of practitioners dealing with destructive anger. The internet has all sorts of approaches from online self study to dedicated intervention agencies. The problem becomes everyone offers a solution but no one clearly defines the problem. We need to commit more attention towards understanding the phenomena.

Like many other behavioral problems there are some leading schools of thought. However, as has been the history of other conditions, the prevailing schools of thought are more correlated to the intervention approaches than towards defining the condition. Nevetheless it serves some merit to review these theories.

The first is Social Learning theory. The originator of this theory is Albert Bandura (Cherry, 2010). Bandura posits people learn from one another. We observe, imitate, and model the behavior of important figures in our lives. For instance; if one grows up in an angry abusive home, they are more likely to be abusive or angry. This certainly seems a viable theory. However, it falls short is conceptualizing all of the processes involved in the angry person. More, it fails to provide a clear approach towards resolving rage.

The treatment most consistent with the Social Learning theory is psychodynamic or behavioral modification in nature. The Rage is not a behavioral choice. In fact, rage is characterized by a loss of control. There is a real disassociation from the present. There is a need to instill a greater sense of responsibility in the sufferer as well as skills to mitigate against this loss of control.

Another classic theory is Operant Conditioning as made known by B.F. Skinner (Sato, 2010). According to Skinner behavior is determined by a stimulus and then different forms of reinforcement (positive or negative) and punishments (negative or positive). For instance, a child acts poorly and to quiet the child the mother offers a favorite toy. The more this occurs; the child is condition towards acting poorly to achieve their goal. Again, while this seems relevant to Anger, the problem becomes how does one truly become unconditioned. More, how does the sense of responsibility get imparted to the sufferer for their behaviors? How much time will it require to reverse the conditioning of an adult who has practiced this type of behavior all their life?

I would argue rage or destructive anger is more a cognitive process rather than primarily behavioral. One forms certain core cognitions and thoughts that lead to behaviors under certain circumstances. These cognitions may be faulty or even destructive. Yet when certain experiences arise they stimulate these faulty or destructive cognitions which, in turn, lead to negative behaviors. This is the gravamen of Cognitive Therapy (Beck, 1999). The key to reversing the destructive behavior patterns is to address the negative cognitions.

What complicates the theoretical approaches is destructive anger or rage has addictive properties. The angry person is very similar to the substance addicted or other addictive personalities.

The addictive personality is one where the person has a predisposition to adopting certain addictions. Addictions are defined as behavioral patterns based on a physical or psychological dependency that negatively affects the quality of life (Addictions, 2010). Addictive behavior is usually premised on (Nelson, 1983);

Impulsive Behavior, difficulty in delaying gratification, an antisocial personality, and a disposition toward sensation making

A high value on nonconformity combined with a weak commitment to the goals for achievement valued by the society.

A sense of social alienation and a general tolerance for deviance

A sense of heightened stress.

What distinguishes addictive behaviors are five interrelated constructs;




Impulse Control Disorders

Physical Dependencies

As we review these constructs and characteristics clearly the anger addict suffers from many of these.

However, there are even stronger indica of addiction. It was posited as a person grows more deeply involved in an addiction there are changes in the brain chemistry. There can be no doubt the angry person experiences a change in brain chemistry. When one becomes angry there is a production of adrenaline which prepares the body for the impending harm. Adrenaline is a strong hormone which produces profound psychological manifestations. Among the most common ones are a sense of power, stamina, and hyper vigilance – an increased awareness. The problem with this increased hormone is the body develops a greater need to achieve the same results each new anger episode. Hence anger leads directly to a biochemical addiction.

This, in turn, implicates all of the processes involved in any chemical addiction. The body requires more as tolerance increases. In addition, the body experiences withdraw as the anger episodes wane. The angry person is compelled to get angry more frequently and with greater intensity.

Hence, I hold the angry person suffers from the addiction of anger. This then implicates the intervention methods practiced in the twelve step programs.

In conclusion, I do not accept the more classic theories of behavior as they relate to anger. I believe rage or destructive anger is a far more complex phenomena. To accept the other theories fuels the perception of the angry person as a pariah. This clearly is counterproductive. When viewed as a person suffering from maladjusted cognitions resulting in a profound addiction I believe it becomes clearer that this person requires treatment. More, they have to accept and adopt a responsibility to manage their lifestyles.


Beck, J. S. (1999). Questions and answers about Cognitive Therapy . Retrieved November 27, 2010, from

Cherry, K. (2010). Retrieved November 27, 2010, from Psychology: htt://

Sato, T. (2010). Classical and operant conditioning. Retrieved 2010

Tavris, C. (1989). Anger: The misunderstood emotion. New York: Simon & Schuster.

Author's Bio: 

Dr. Ronald K M Williams Garcia is a licensed Marriage and Family Therapist. In addition, he is a Certified Anger Resolution Therapist and a Certified Anger Management Facilitator. He has worked with families for over ten years. He has worked with children and adolescents for the past seven years. He is currently the Director of TriState Anger Management Inc.