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Self-Distancing May Help Deal With Anger

Update Date: Jul 02, 2012 11:35 AM EDT

The next time you get angry, you might want to use a technique to reduce the frustration that's building up inside of you. A new study reveals a simple strategy that people can use to minimize how angry and aggressive they get when they are provoked by others.

Researchers are calling this strategy "self-distancing."

Self-distancing is simply trying to pretend that you are not involved in the frustrating situation and that you are an observer. And, once you take yourself from the scenario, try to understand your feelings.

"The secret is to not get immersed in your own anger and, instead, have a more detached view," said Dominik Mischkowski, lead author of the research and a graduate student in psychology at Ohio State University. "You have to see yourself in this stressful situation as a fly on the wall would see it."

According to Mischkowski, this is the first study to show that self-distancing can work in the heat of the moment, when people are most likely to act aggressively.

There were two related studies consisting of nearly 200 college students.

The first students who were told they were participating in a study about the effects of music on problem solving, creativity and emotions. But the plan of the study was to provoke the students into anger, which the experimenters did using a technique which has been used many times in similar studies.

After being provoked, the participants were told they would be participating in a task examining the effects of music on creativity and feelings. The students were told to "see the scene in your mind's eye." They were put into three groups, each of which were asked to view the scene in different ways.

Some students were told to adopt a self-immersed perspective where they can see the situation unfold through their eyes as if it were happening to them all over again and then analyze their feelings surrounding the event. Others were told to use the self-distancing perspective where they would move away from the situation to a point where they can now watch the event unfold from a distance and ¦watch the situation unfold as if it were happening to the distant you all over again and then analyze their feelings. The third control group was not told how to view the scene or analyze their feelings.

Results showed that students who used the self-distancing perspective had fewer aggressive thoughts and felt less angry than both those who used the self-immersed approach and those in the control group.

"The self-distancing approach helped people regulate their angry feelings and also reduced their aggressive thoughts," Mischkowski said.

In a second similar study, the researchers set out to show that self-distancing can actually make people less aggressive when they've been provoked. Researchers found that participants who used the self-distancing perspective to think about their provocations showed lower levels of aggression than those in the other groups.

"These participants were tested very shortly after they had been provoked by," Mischkowski said. "The fact that those who used self-distancing showed lower levels of aggression shows that this technique can work in the heat of the moment, when the anger is still fresh."

This suggests people may naturally use a self-immersing perspective when confronted with a provocation - a perspective that is not likely to reduce anger.

"Many people seem to believe that immersing themselves in their anger has a cathartic effect, but it doesn't. It backfires and makes people more aggressive," said Brad Bushman, a co-author of the study and professor of communication and psychology at Ohio State.

Another technique people are sometimes told to use when angered is to distract themselves - think of something calming to take their mind off their anger.

Mischkowski said this may be effective in the short-term, but the anger will return when the distraction is not there.

"But self-distancing really works, even right after a provocation - it is a powerful intervention tool that anyone can use when they're angry."

Mischkowski and Bushman conducted the study with Ethan Kross of the University of Michigan. Their findings appear online in the Journal of Experimental Social Psychology and will be published in a future print edition.

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