Anger is learned behavior; and so is hatred.

Image for post
Image for post

“Not everything that can be faced can be changed, but nothing can be changed that is not faced.” — James Baldwin. I am not Your Negro.

Anger is the external manifestation of our feelings of frustration projected towards others. If I’m angry, chances are I feel frustrated about something in my environment, something I can’t change. Instead of dealing with the root cause, I choose to unleash my frustration on someone else. The situation may not improve but it sure feels good to get the anger out of my system.

Of course, we’re all born with the physical ability to feel the chemical and hormonal changes that accompany anger (flushed face, raised blood pressure, increased heart rate, etc.) but the emotion also needs a target, someone or something to be angry at. A newborn doesn’t even understand the concepts of self and other. It has no way of knowing what it means to be angry. It has to learn that.

Early on in life, children observe situations in which anger is used by those around them as a seemingly reasonable and effective response. They learn, through observation, how and when it’s appropriate to use anger in stressful social situations. It’s only then that we start seeing children exhibit and express anger as an emotion.

Watch a baby carefully for the first few months of his or her development and this fact becomes obvious. Newborn babies exhibit very few recognizable human emotions other than crying due to physical discomfort or emotional distress. Very quickly, within the first few weeks, they pick up visual cues from their parents about expressions of happiness and start smiling in response to positive experiences. Surprise and joy are also common expressions as they encounter and understand new situations.

However, you’ll never see an angry baby and there’s a good reason for that. Emotions such as anger, hatred, and fear, are more complex in that they require recognition of social constructs such as self and others. This is why young children seem fearless; they have no concept of self to be protective of. Similarly, you need to be angry at someone or at something, and it takes a few more months for children to develop a sense of individuals as durable entities with personalities that they can interact with. Even then, they don’t exhibit anger as an emotion.

They then learn over the next few months, through observation of those around them, what it means to be angry and how that emotion can be used as a tool in social situations. It’s then, and only then, that we start seeing children exhibit anger in their behavior. They watch mom or dad or the babysitter turn red with anger, yell and scream, and then calm down. The first few times they witness this, the look on their faces is one of confusion and incomprehension. They have no idea what they’re witnessing.

Wait, what is this? I don’t recognize this behavior. Why is he (or she) getting all worked up and screaming? This doesn’t make any sense. What objective does that achieve? I’m so confused.

[A few months later…] Ah, I see now. It’s a legitimate form of behavior in social situations when you’re frustrated about something and seems to always result in the person feeling better immediately afterwards — regardless of whether the situation actually changed or not.

I can either pick up these toys my brother left on the ground or I can yell at him for being inconsiderate and lazy. Wow, that does make me feel good. Lesson learned.

The concepts of anger and hatred require an understanding of the social concepts that a newborn baby clearly does not possess: you, me, mom, dad, brother, dog. None of these mean anything to a newborn. Frustration, by necessity, must come first as an emotion, just as we solidify the concept of self. I can’t control or change X, therefore I feel frustrated about the situation. To be angry, by comparison, requires not just an understanding of a given situation and my (in)ability to change it, but also the concept of an “other” who could be blamed for the situation as a proxy for my frustration.

They only learn that this is a valid (and sometimes successful) emotional response through observing those around them over repeated episodes of adults throwing temper tantrums at each other and sometimes, oddly and inexplicably, even at inanimate objects: the damn car, the stupid computer, the f’ing microwave oven!

But, you’ll say, anger and aggression have been seen in many other species as well. Just look at the apes. It’s in our genes.

There’s a difference between aggression and anger. The former is a biological formula programmed into us by evolution. The latter is, by necessity, a social construct. The lion is never really angry at the gazelle he’s chasing. That’s just dinner. He may show tons of aggression to get the desired goal (food) but I doubt you’ll detect any anger towards the gazelle. He will only get angry (at himself) if and when he becomes frustrated in his attempts, when he stumbles or misses the mark repeatedly. He also gets angry at his mates or his cubs or his wife. Those are all social constructs with plenty of opportunity for learned behavior and for frustrating social situations.

Similarly, hate, as an emotion, requires an understanding not just of all the above social concepts but also of entities as diverse as celery (my personal nemesis) and celebrity (who doesn’t hate Justin Bieber?), as irrelevant as religion, and as opaque as race. There seems to be no shortage of things to hate in the universe — and the list is ever growing. Bieber just happens to be at the center of the Venn diagram of all sets of things hateable.

The point remains, though. Anger is learned behavior. Frustration is a slow burn while anger is the volcano that releases pressure. And anger begets hate. Hate is just frustration and anger projected to a group or category instead of an individual.

Of course, it will take the child years to understand what it means to be a Jew or a Muslim or a Christian, a Mexican or a negro or a homosexual — take your pick. But, by then, he has perfected his anger skills. And it takes the same amount of effort to be angry at your sister at age three as it does to claim you hate Muslims or gays or blacks at age twelve — in both cases barely understanding what the object of your hatred, your anger, really means.

Here, too, we often learn by watching those around us and mimicking what they claim to hate. Seldom do we slow down later in life long enough to question those beliefs.

So, what’s the answer? Just be aware of your actions — at all times. That’s the best I can tell people with babies around them — parents, grandparents, uncles and aunts, siblings, babysitters, teachers, mentors, cousins, daycare workers, therapists, priests, and any others who interact regularly with children and influence them during their most formative years.

You’re being watched non-stop by a supercomputer with legs and hands, one that can learn three languages simultaneously and effortlessly, one that teaches itself to speak fluently and with no accent and in a grammatically correct manner — just by watching you and mimicking you. Do you really think (s)he won’t similarly learn by watching your behavior when you’re angry?

A temper tantrum over a frustrating situation is almost a daily event for us adults: be it caused by a traffic jam or a fight over money with our spouse or a stupid boss at work.

It’s so common to be frustrated as an adult that we almost don’t think about it. And we effortlessly turn our frustration into anger. We yell at the stupid car door and slam it, we stamp our foot and demand an apology from the hapless cashier, we yell at our kids for not eating their food. We’ve become immune to it; it’s routine for us and it sure does feel good to blow off some steam. But every one of those events is a revelation to a child, a lesson.

As for those suffering from anger management issues: If we understand that anger and hatred are just outward projections of frustration with a situation in our social environment, then and only then, can we take responsibility for our emotions and act in a constructive manner instead of blaming others. Attack the root cause instead of casting blame.

Watch your actions. Children are much smarter than we realize. They learn so much so quickly, often without us even understanding that they’re doing so.

Former CTO of VMware, former VP at Microsoft, recovering long distance runner, avid cyclist, newly minted grandpa.

Get the Medium app

A button that says 'Download on the App Store', and if clicked it will lead you to the iOS App store
A button that says 'Get it on, Google Play', and if clicked it will lead you to the Google Play store