UNC-TV Science: May 15, 2014
Anger, Altruism and Social Justice

Yesterday I brought home a nine-week-old black lab named Ollie. After a long day of meeting people, going to Petco and tripping over his gigantic paws, he had pretty much tuckered himself out by about 9:30 PM.

I put him to bed in his crate and went to sleep myself at around 11:30 but at around 1:30 in the morning he was up scratching at his crate and yelping to go outside. The same thing happened again at 5:30, but he wouldn’t go back to sleep until he had some food and played around for a little bit.

Now while I don’t want to encourage Ollie to make noise in the night, every time I hear the little guy’s tiny whimpers, I can’t help but feel for him. I can feel that he’s curious, a little lonely and sad that he can’t run around and play, and that motivates me to get him pretty much whatever he wants.

Psychologists would say that my empathy for Ollie’s sadness is acting as a motivator to provide him what he needs. But while we tend to think of sadness as the primary emotion that people empathize with, more psychologists are starting to recognize anger as an empathic emotion. And new research from Appalachian State University shows that empathic anger can also be a powerful motivator.

In the field of psychology, sadness dominated the research and established the theory of empathy. Basically we see something or someone that is sad, and we feel sad too. Often, this shared sadness makes us want to do something about it, so some marketers choose to use this empathic sadness as a motivator for charity. Think ASPCA commercials.*

But in the late 1980s, scholars started to recognize that we could empathize with emotions other than sadness, and even with emotions other than those the person we empathize with is feeling.

Imagine you see a fisherman near an oil spill that isn’t catching fish because of the oil. You could empathize with him, and maybe you’ll feel sad that the fisherman has hard times ahead. You could, however, also feel anger towards the company that spilled the oil, what psychologists would call a “transgressor.” This empathic anger can also be a used as a tool to promote altruism. The environmental group Greenpeace relies heavily on anger in its advertising.

Over the past decade, a handful of studies have sought to define the parameters of empathic anger and its effects on altruistic behavior. At Appalachian State, psychologist Robert Bringle surveyed 250 students about their feelings of empathic anger and their likelihood to become involved in charity or social justice work.

He found that the students who tested higher for empathic anger were more likely to do community service work. High scorers for empathic anger were also less likely to refer to their altruistic work as charity. Instead they advocated for social justice and systemic societal changes.

Bringle says that empathic anger may be a good way to promote community service among college-age people. He and two undergraduates presented their research at the British Psychological Society Conference on May 7, 2014.

- Daniel Lane

Daniel Lane covers science, medicine and the environment as a reporter/writer. He is currently pursuing a master's degree in medical and science journalism at UNC - Chapel Hill.

*That’s a totally coincidental juxtaposition of ASPCA commercials and Ollie. Ollie is happy as a clam!