Brain and Behavior

Anger Found to Motivate People to Reach Goals

Although most people probably believe that happiness is ideal for overall well-being, new research indicates that anger can be a powerful motivator in goal achievement.

The study, which was published by the American Psychological Association, found that, compared to a neutral condition, anger improved people’s ability to reach their goals. In fact, in some cases, the researchers discovered that anger was associated with shorter response times and increased scores. One of the experiments’ results demonstrated that anger also increased cheating to achieve a better outcome.

“People often believe that a state of happiness is ideal, and the majority of people consider the pursuit of happiness to be a major life goal,” explained Dr. Heather Lench, a professor in Texas A&M University’s department of psychologic and brain sciences who served as the lead author on the study. “The view that positive emotion is ideal for mental health and well-being has been prominent in lay and psychological accounts of emotion, but previous research suggests that a mix of emotions, including negative emotions like anger, result in the best outcomes.”

The Experiments

The research team’s experiments included eliciting either a neutral emotional state or an emotional response from 1,000 participants and then giving them a challenging goal.

For example, the study participants were shown visuals designed to evoke a neutral response or a different specific emotional response (e.g., anger, sadness, desire, or amusement). Then they were asked to solve a series of word puzzles or given a skiing video game that was either easy or challenging. Regardless of the experiment, the participants’ ability to reach challenging goals were improved when they were angry rather than neutral. But anger wasn’t associated with reaching easier goals, such as the simpler challenge in the skiing video.

Analyzing the role of anger in voting

In addition to the experiments, the scientists also analyzed survey data from more than 1,400 respondents collected during the 2016 and 2020 U.S. presidential elections. Voters were asked questions before and after the elections, including:

• Before the elections: People were asked to rate how angry they would be if their favorite candidate didn’t win.

• After the elections: People were asked whether they voted and for whom they voted.

The researchers found that of the people surveyed, those who indicated they’d be angry if their candidate lost were more likely to vote, although anger had no effect on which candidate they voted for.

“These findings demonstrate that anger increases effort toward attaining a designed goal, frequently resulting in greater success,” said Lench.

Other emotions that fuel increased goal attainment

Anger wasn’t the only emotion that increased the success of participants when faced with challenges. So, too, were desire and amusement.

“People often prefer to use positive emotions as tools more than negative and tend to see negative emotions as undesirable and maladaptive,” explained Lench. “Our research adds to the growing evidence that a mix of positive and negative emotions promotes well-being, and that using negative emotions as tools can be particularly effective in some situations.”

The results were published in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology.


Wendy Burt-Thomas writes about the brain, mental health and parenting.

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