The State-Trait Anger Theory, developed by Charles Donald Spielberger (1927-2013), is a psychological theory that examines the nature and dynamics of anger. Affect incidences that we experience as anger are common to all humans. The emotion is an essential survival mechanism to protect against threats. Spielberger explains that “normally emotions such as anxiety and anger…pain and joy interact to motivate a person to a goal directed action” (Spielberger & Reheiser, 2009). However, not every emotion is every situation is appropriate. Many pathologies are associated with dysfunctional experiences of emotion. Mood disorders are common and disruptive, spoiling wellness, and ruining many lives.
Anger easily crosses boundaries of healthy utility to maladaptive destructiveness. Because of common hurtful and dangerous expressions of anger, many psychologists and researchers curiously examine the role of anger in our lives. One theory providing an in depth look into the emotional experience of anger is Spielberger’s concept of state-trait anger.
State-Trait Anger Theory examines individual variations of expressions of anger, including intensity, duration, and frequency of expressions of anger. The state-trait elements of the theory separates states of anger expressed in specific incidents from personality traits that lead to more frequent, higher intensity, and longer duration of incidents of angry emotional states.
Anger, Hostility, and Aggression
“In the psychological and psychiatric literature, anger, hostility, and aggression generally refer to different though related phenomena, but these terms are often used interchangeably” (Spielberger, Krasner, & Solomon, 1988, p. 166). Spielberger explains that anger refers to states of arousal in response to specific incidents (state anger); hostility refers to a personality trait of frequent and intense states of angry arousal (trait anger); and aggression refers to expressions of anger.
Spielberger refers to the construct of the three components of anger, hostility and aggression as the AHA! Syndrome. Since research has found significant association between anger and hypertension and coronary heart disease, Spielberger that research needed a construction of objective, reliable, and valid measures of each component.
Spielberger’s inventory test (STAXI-2) assess state anger, trait anger, and anger expression and measures the way these components contribute to medical conditions. Empirical research supports the validity and reliability of the STAX-2 as an instrument for measuring the experience and managing of anger.
Five Hypotheses of State-Trait Anger Theory
Spielberger’s state-trait anger theory leads to five general hypotheses or predictions. Empirical research supports each of these predictions (Lievaart, Franken, & Hovens, 2016; Deffenbacher, et al. 1996).
The five hypotheses state that individuals higher in trait anger than individuals lower in trait anger according to the STAXI-2:
- have more situations that elicit anger (elicitation hypothesis)
- more frequent expriences of anger (frequency hypothesis)
- more intensity in experiences of anger (intensity hypothesis)
- more likely to behave aggressively (aggression hypothesis)
- more likely to experience negative consequences from expressions of anger (negative consequence hypothesis)
(Deffenbacher; Richards; Filetti, & Lynch, 2005, p. 456).
State anger refers to the temporary emotional and physiological arousal that occurs in response to a perceived threat or frustration. It is a reactive form of anger that is triggered by specific circumstances. State anger can vary in intensity and duration, depending on the individual’s perception and interpretation of the situation.
Jerry L. Deffenbacher and his colleagues wrote, “affectively, state anger is experienced along a continuum from little to no anger through mild to moderate emotions such as irritation, annoyance, and frustration to highly emotionally charged states such as fury and rage” (Deffenbacher, et al., 1996, p. 131).
When experiencing state anger, people may display verbal and physical aggression, irritability, and an overall feeling of displeasure. The intensity of state anger can escalate quickly, especially when the person perceives a threat to their well-being or when they feel powerless in the situation.
Trait anger, on the other hand, is a relatively stable characteristic that varies among individuals. It represents a general predisposition to experience anger across a variety of situations. People with high trait anger tend to perceive more situations as frustrating or threatening, and they are more likely to display anger-related responses compared to those with lower trait anger.
Trait anger can be influenced by various factors, including genetic predispositions, early life experiences, and socialization. Individuals with high trait anger may have a tendency to interpret situations as more hostile or unfair, leading to a heightened anger response and increased emotional lability.
Impact on Behavior and Well-being
The State Trait Anger Theory suggests that both state anger and trait anger can have significant implications for individual behavior and well-being. Excessive or poorly managed anger can negatively affect relationships, career prospects, and overall quality of life (negative consequence hypothesis).
In terms of state anger, the theory emphasizes the importance of developing effective anger management strategies. Techniques such as cognitive restructuring, relaxation exercises, and communication skills training can help individuals better regulate their anger responses and prevent negative outcomes.
For individuals with high trait anger, the theory highlights the need for understanding and addressing underlying causes and triggers. This may involve therapy, counseling, or other interventions aimed at reducing anger proneness and promoting healthier responses to anger-provoking situations.
A Few Words by Psychology Fanatic
The State Trait Anger Theory provides valuable insights into the nature and dynamics of anger. By distinguishing between state anger and trait anger, this theory helps researchers and practitioners develop targeted interventions to manage and reduce anger-related issues. Understanding the complexities of anger can contribute to healthier emotional well-being and promote more positive interactions in both personal and professional contexts.
As we enter another presidential campaign season, I can’t help but notice the high percentage of candidates that possess or portray high trait levels of anger. Unfortunately, when we endure constant bombardment of expressions of anger, the heightened emotions tend to spread among the population (emotional contagion). Social media also contributes to this rapid spread of anger. Anger is not individual; it focuses on targets, typically individuals and groups. Our collective anger slowly destroys the togetherness of our society. Perhaps, we as a nation are adopting a harmful trait of anger and excusing it as righteous indignation.
Deffenbacher, J., Oetting, E., Thwaites, G., Lynch, R., Baker, D., Stark, R., Thacker, S., & Eiswerth-Cox, L. (1996). State–Trait Anger Theory and the Utility of the Trait Anger Scale. Journal of Counseling Psychology, 43(2), 131-148. DOI: 10.1037/0022-0188.8.131.52
Lievaart, M., Franken, I., & Hovens, J. (2016). Anger Assessment in Clinical and Nonclinical Populations: Further Validation of the State–Trait Anger Expression Inventory‐2. Journal of Clinical Psychology, 72(3), 263-278. DOI: 10.1002/jclp.22253
Spielberger, Charles, D.; Krasner, Susan S.; Solomon, Eldra P. (1988). The Experience, Expression, and Control of Anger. Editor: Janisse, Michel P. in Individual Differences, Stress, and Health Psychology (Contributions to Psychology and Medicine) (p. 166). Springer New York. Kindle Edition.