I used to be a bully—intellectually, anyway. As a student, I often found myself sitting through classes where I suspected that the teacher didn’t really know what they were talking about. So I’d pounce—arguing, cross-examining, pointing out logical flaws, and generally being an obnoxious gadfly, just like my childhood idol, Socrates.
But like all bullies, I wasn’t being mean simply for the sake of being mean; I was being mean because it seemed to fill a need in me. It made me feel powerful and smart in an environment where I was frequently under-stimulated, under-challenged, and bored stiff.
Just like the playground bully who learns that picking on little kids makes him feel big and strong after a night of abuse and belittling at home, I unconsciously learned that being hypercritical and judgmental made me feel smart after hours of classroom boredom and academic disappointment.
Of course, this general attitude of judgmentalness didn’t win me many friends among my professors. And rightly so…
The difference between judging and being judgmental
At the time, I rationalized my judgmentalness with an argument something like this: “The truth is what matters most, especially in school. I’m just pointing out the truth!”
I thought of myself as a dispassionate judge simply setting the record straight. But to my teachers, I was coming across as a judgmental jerk. And they were right.
Besides the fact that I didn’t know nearly as much as I thought I did, my own rationalization doesn’t hold up for an important psychological reason: My motives were selfish and entirely unexamined. Like the sophists of Socrates’ day, I was using argumentation and logic for something other than the pursuit of truth and knowledge—money for them, better feels for me. And so I was rightly perceived as judgmental, rather than simply judging.
But it wasn’t just the alleviation of boredom and disappointment that motivated my judgmentalness. There was something even more psychologically insidious going on…
What we all get wrong about anger
So far we’ve established that being judgmental is rightly considered poor behavior because—unlike dispassionate judging—it’s motivated by selfish reasons: In my case, I wanted to feel less bored. But that’s only half the story.
I got in the habit of being judgmental because it alleviated the aversive feelings of boredom and disappointment—a process psychologists call negative reinforcement. It’s negative not in a good/bad sense but negative in the sense that the behavior (judgmentalness) increased because of a reduction in something aversive (boredom and disappointment).
Negative reinforcement is powerful enough to sustain many habits. But the most powerful habits are both negatively and positively reinforced. Junk food and drugs, for example, are so powerful as habits because they alleviate negative feelings and add positive ones.
Similarly, my habit of judgmentalness was especially strong because it was also positively reinforced: In addition to the alleviation of boredom and disappointment, I also felt a swell of positive feeling while I was arguing and being judgmental. This was partly excitement—the thrill of the intellectual hunt!—but by far the largest positive emotion I experienced in these situations was good old-fashioned self-righteous anger.
But for anger to be a positive reinforcer, that would have to mean anger is… a positive thing?!
One of the most common misconceptions about human psychology is the idea that anger is a “negative” emotion.
We incorrectly classify anger as negative because the outcomes it leads to are often negative: That sarcastic comment we mutter to our spouse after an argument that becomes a point of resentment or the car accident we get into as a result of our road rage and poor driving. Notice that in neither of the above examples are we actually describing the emotion of anger. Instead, we’re describing the outcomes and behaviors that it preceded.
But just because an emotional experience precedes a certain outcome doesn’t mean the emotional experience corresponds to the valence of the outcome. For example, if I miss exercising for a few days in a row, I often feel a mild twinge of guilt. Consequently, I end up going to the gym. But just because the behavioral result of getting to the gym was positive, that doesn’t make the emotional precursor of guilt a positive feeling. Guilt still feels bad even if it occasionally precedes positive results.
Emotions are properly defined by what they are themselves, not what they may or may not lead to down the line. So even though anger often precedes very bad outcomes, the feeling of anger itself is actually quite positive.
But anger does feel bad. I hate being angry!
Are you sure?
As I’ll try to show in the following section, we actually feel positive when we’re angry, although a lifetime on confusing antecedent and outcome has muddled our awareness of it.
Anger is a positive emotion.
Far be it from me to tell you how you feel. Still, I’d like to suggest a little experiment the next time you feel frustrated, annoyed, irritable, enraged, or any other emotional variant of anger: Stop and ask yourself Is the actual feeling state I’m absorbed in pleasurable or painful?
I think you’ll find that, often enough, anger itself feels quite pleasurable when you disentangle it from its surrounding thoughts and behaviors.
Here’s why: Anger is typically the result of the following assessment about the world: Something is wrong. Now, if that were the end of the assessment, you’d expect to feel negative. But hidden between the lines of most assessments of injustice is an implied assessment of justice: Something is wrong… and I’m right!
In other words, the cognitive assessment that precedes anger almost always involves an argumentation along the lines of they’re wrong and I’m right, which is decidedly positive and leads to a proportionally pleasurable emotional experience.
When we learn to stop and observe it carefully, we often find that the real feeling of anger is a sense of power, agency, control, pride, and righteousness. All of which feel very, very good.
Okay, maybe anger is positive. But what difference does it make?
As the notorious gadfly Socrates famously proclaimed:
The unexamined life is not worth living.
And while I never managed to get on to the philosophy career track, I found my way into psychology, which values that sentiment just as highly as the philosophers.
As a practicing psychologist, I get to witness every day how unexamined bits of thinking, emotion, belief, and desire get people tangled up in painful webs of emotional suffering and distress. And an unexamined view of anger is one of the primary culprits.
Here are two examples from my own life of how a poorly understood theory of anger can be problematic:
Anger is an antidepressant (with some potentially nasty side-effects)
As an argumentative classroom bully, I was amazingly unaware of the psychological mechanics driving my behavior: Being judgmental and overly-argumentative helped me alleviate the boredom, disappointment—and in a sense, profound sadness about the state of my education—by substituting anger as my dominant emotional experience in the classroom.
The trouble was, it got me into unnecessary conflict with teachers and professors who didn’t appreciate my antics. And while I managed to make it through my academic career without any major issues, there were a couple close calls. That’s a pretty risky gamble for the sake of temporarily numbing out the feeling of boredom and disappointment.
Anger is a crutch that makes us passive
In addition to the explicit side effects of unexamined anger-as-antidepressant, it also has an implicit opportunity cost.
In economics, opportunity cost refers to all things you can’t purchase once you’ve committed your money to a specific purchase. If I spend $10 on a burger and fries, I can’t spend that $10 on a car wash, movie ticket, or anything else.
But opportunity cost applies to any model of investment. When I invested my time and energy into arguing with my professors, that was time and energy I couldn’t spend elsewhere.
For example, a much better, more productive use of my time and energy would have been to address my boredom and disappointment head-on: Instead of criticizing my professors or school for not doing a good enough job, I could have taken it upon myself to study and learn more on my own.
My argumentative judgmentalness and all the ego-boosting anger that resulted distracted me from a very real solution to my problem.
All You Need to Know
Most of us think of anger as a negative emotion because its consequences often are. But the experience of anger itself is actually positive, which means it functions as a powerful but subtle reinforcer of unhelpful behavior.
One of the most common “uses” of anger is that it serves to alleviate or distract from other aversive feelings like sadness or boredom. Seen in this light, unhelpful tendencies like judgmentalness and hypercriticalness begin to make more sense as drivers of a temporarily useful emotion.
But awareness of this pattern of judgmentalness leading to anger which serves to alleviate a painful emotion like sadness is only possible when we begin to take a closer more nuanced look at our emotional lives.
As Socrates might have said had he ended up on a slightly different career path:
The unexamined emotional life is not worth living.
21 CommentsAdd Yours
I think you just gave an explanation to behaviours that I was never able to piece together until now.. My tendency to being judgemental and get into intellectual disagreements was actually part of an ‘intellectual hunt’..
And yes, me too thought that I was angry(an often not nice) because I was passionate to make ‘truth’ prevail. I thought I was on a noble journey.
But now I see that it was not just that.. it was as much for the pursuit of truth as for intellectual stimulation..
Thanks. Really resonated.
Glad it was helpful, Maria!
I am also a kind of person that you mentioned in the article. I go even step further. I like to flex muscle over others, blaming, boasting myself…. to name a few other than being judgemental and arguing. I quite often get angry specially when others didn’t agree with my views.
After reading Nick’s article with bit more insight I feel my real needs are acceptance and be in control. That is the part of life that I examined so far.
I like the article a lot because it gives me the wisdom to examine the unexamined aspects of our behaviors and thinking patterns and thereby enabling us to make use of those into positive energies for our self growth.
Thank you very much for your article.
Really interesting, thank you
Nick, well crafted and communicated.
In the psychology of emotions we identify an emotion as constructive or destructive. The terms positive and negative are not the scientific terms. Anger can be constructive when it drives us to new thinking and behaviors (the Civil Rights movement of the 60s is a good example of anger toward a people group creating positive change – not quite finished, though). Anger can be destructive when it damages relationships. This is the essence of emotional intelligence, the ability to manage an emotion and recognize when it can hurt others, then tone down one’s response to an acceptable level.
Trust this adds some insights to your outstanding thinking on the harm of being judgmental.
Mny tks. Deep and resourceful. Needs re reading to try and use all this in every day situations. Thanks alot.
Wonderful article thank you for writing it!
Dear poster, you hit the nail on the head.
I am highly judgmental and critical not only of others but myself.
I always believed I held absolute truth but to the people that were far more humble, gracious and kind to me I learnt more from them than my own bigotry would ever teach someone else.
“…criticizing my professors or school for not doing a good enough job,” lol
Insightful article many thanks Nick. Much more plausible than the plethora of airy fairy articles out there attempting to describe why I’m a judgmental bastard. Oh look I’m being judgmental. Took a bit to sway me to believe anger is a positive emotion though in a self-righteous ugly way it kinda is. Can’t imagine many of the happy hormones are involved in the process though as not a high I’d seek out.
I wonder if you know (but suspect that you do) how much of this – and other things you write/share applies to recovery? I think one of your most brilliant points here is the use of anger as a distraction. Which leads me to a belief I have long held that anger is not an emotion in and of itself. I do not believe that if when asked – how is one feeling? – angry is a real response because in my opinion anger is a secondary emotion to another emotion. I think if people were truly in touch with and honest about their feelings and their emotions they’d find that anger is not their base emotion – anger is an offshoot emotion of a different true feeling like… frustration, sadness, fear, hunger, hurt…
Thank you for your great shares.
Interesting about the bully comment too… it’s a clean, easy comparison. But it’s rarely that clear cut that bullies come to school the day after a night of abuse and commence bullying. The root of how the bully was bullied is usually so much more cloudy and insidious than that. Not a criticism! Just wish the bully culture could be more fleshed out and understood so it could be addressed and treated.
Developing self-awareness of one’s own behavior is key; but remains challenging. It is still unclear to me what is part of a particular personality type as ENTJ and/or a personality disorder as a conflict/management disorder or argumentative disorder and what is to be done to help oneself to live a better quality of life.
Thank you for this lightbulb moment for me, Nick. This makes total sense to me. Over the years I’ve been quite judgemental of my depressed, passive, neurotic and insecure mother. But deep down I really feel frustrated, sad and powerless to make her happier.
Not judging you, just an observation and thought, sorry if I’m out of line but is it possible that you’re more like your mother than you think you are? I’m not at all saying that you are, I have just come into the realization that I am a lot like my mother and a lot of the stuff that I dislike and have always disliked about her are strong characteristics in me as well. Please ignore this and my apologies if it’s not the case for you!
I thought the same.
I have been researching psychology for 3 years now & I have never come across an article that dives into this concept.
With me or no??
“The unexamined life is not worth living”
Indeed. But what about an incompletely examined life? What about incompletely examined feelings and motivations? What about an incompletely examined view of one’s own impulse to anger?
While I recognize valid insights here, and at the risk of presumption and projection on my part, I feel such incompleteness is the case with this article—that you yourself have not examined your own feelings and motivations to the depth necessary for full understanding.
I feel this when I read you attributing your need to feel powerful and smart to an environment where you felt under-stimulated, under-challenged, and boredom. It seems that deeper esteem needs must necessarily be involved in such motivation to judgment; an underlying insecurity, a feeling of vulnerability, that needs to compensate with a posture of superior intellect and knowing judgment.
Sadly, your subsequent elaboration on the “something more going on” doesn’t go anywhere near acknowledging such a deeper need. Focusing on a habit of “negative reinforcement” in response to the aversive feelings of boredom and disappointment seems to be simply evasive rationalization.
Perhaps you had reinforcements early in your life to believe in your intellectual superiority, but that doesn’t mean that you did not experience feelings of insecurity in that status. It does not mean that there was not something in your life that challenged and undermined your confidence. The need to feel superior and the compulsion to judge suggests such a deep insecurity.
And such a pattern of always needing to be the smart one, the superior one, endures long after the wounds that led to the insecurities that underlie that need have been forgotten. It endures long after any conscious awareness of that insecurity and inferiority has faded. So it is easy to attribute it to superficial, more immediate causes.
Since I feel that you aren’t dealing with what I’m certain are deeper ego needs underlying such a need, this makes me wonder if you still feel a need to be the intellectually superior, authoritative sage who dispenses insight and understanding.
Again, I can’t believe this was about alleviating boredom and disappointment. One can feel boredom and disappointment without also feeling compelled to judge and to blame those perceived to be responsible. Boredom and disappointment do not by themselves create in a person a need to feel smart, powerful, self-righteous and superior.
I agree with your analysis of anger generating a “good feeling” and thus being a positive reinforcement of hypercritical behavior. And I agree that such anger can carry a sense of “Something is wrong, and I am right.”
No doubt such a sense of superiority is an important part of the equation much of the time. But not all of the time. Sometimes, behind the judgment is a realistic awareness and understanding of better ways to deal with situations than what is being observed; and a legitimate anger at the harm being caused by what is being handled badly. One can feel this way without any ego need for being the smart one, the right one. One can know that their understanding of the better way is valid while not feeling superior to or judgmental of the bad actor(s) being observed. The anger is out of genuine concern for those being harmed; it isn’t about the one feeling the anger.
It is when feelings of superiority and self-righteousness are present that we can rightly suspect deeper motives of insecurity and inferiority underlying the response. It is THEN that the anger is about the person feeling better about himself.
I believe you are correct to say, “When we learn to stop and observe it carefully, we often find that the real feeling of anger is a sense of power, agency, control, pride, and righteousness. All of which feel very, very good.”
Again, this is often true. But being aware that these feelings are behind the anger without having any awareness of the ego needs that are driving THEM is not going to do anything to help a person get at the roots of such patterns of response.
This article was quite a disappointment. I am aware that a deeper ego-neediness—a long-lingering insecurity and feeling of inferiority from very early years—drives my own judgmentalness and my need to be the smart one. I was hoping that this article would address this and offer insight regarding how to defuse and overcome such nagging ego needs. Obviously, if the teacher/counselor hasn’t figured this out for himself, he’s going to be of limited help to those looking to him for help.
I think the article is really valuable because it raises deep seated questions about yourself and your behavior. I had an experience recently, and I am over 50, where I was unconsciously dismissive and rude to someone I did not know, and it caused a rift with someone I do know. My friend was horrified at my behavior and thank goodness I did it in front of her, because without that consequence I may have not stopped myself and realized – I am insecure and have an esteem issue. I agree with Jeff that you did not do that because you were bored, it’s because you were feeling insecure from deep seated complexes in your unconscious – your ‘shadow’ as Jung called it. I am glad that I get to experience the feeling of pain and will try to follow the anxiety and make my insecurities conscious so I do not have to project them onto others. Then I can have mutually satisfying relationships.
This article was really enlightening for me. I deeply want to examine my anger and the source of it, what it is replacing. What do you recommend as a next step.?