Tuesday, 2 February 2016

Scientific evidence that counting to 10 helps control anger (sometimes)

It's something we're taught from a young age – when you're about to go into a rage, force yourself to count to ten and hopefully the storm will pass. This may sound like common sense, but without testing the method scientifically, how do we know if and when it really works? For example, while the counting delay could give you a chance to get a grip of your aggressive urges, it's equally plausible that it could give you time to grow even angrier about whatever triggered your displeasure in the first place.

For a new study in the Journal of Applied Social Psychology, Jeffrey Osgood and Mark Muraven at the State University of New York have put a version of the count-to-ten method to the test and they've found that it really can help reduce aggression, but only in certain circumstances.

They recruited 312 students to take part in what they were told was a test of virtual teamwork. First, the researchers asked half the participants to complete a task designed to reduce their levels of self-control (they had to write a stream-of-consciousness essay while avoiding thinking about a white bear). The other participants completed some maths problems, which does not tax self-control so much.

Next, each participant wrote an essay about their favourite childhood TV show and then they exchanged essays with what they thought was their task partner who was working elsewhere on another computer. In fact, this was a ruse and was simply a chance for the researchers to provoke the participants with some damning essay feedback, ostensibly from their partner.  He/she wrote of their essay: "This is one of the dumbest essays that I have ever read. Only an idiot would say something like that, I can't believe you are even in college."

Suitably provoked, each participant was then given the chance to decide how many minutes their partner had to play an unpleasant card memorisation game in which wrong answers were punishable by a noise-blast – choosing a longer amount of time was taken as a sign of greater anger and increased aggression.  In two further twists, some of the participants had been told that their partner would subsequently be making the same decision for them – in other words, he or she would have the chance to retaliate. Also, some of the participants chose their partner's fate immediately after receiving the rude essay feedback, while others were forced to wait around 30 seconds, thus mimicking the delay effects of counting to ten.

As expected, the participants who'd had their self-control depleted tended to decide their partner's fate more quickly (when there was no forced delay) and they tended to be more aggressive in their decisions, although this wasn't statistically significant. Focusing on the participants with reduced self-control, the results showed that when there were consequences (i.e. their partner could retaliate), the forced delay made them less aggressive – that is, they chose for their partner to suffer 3.9 minutes of the unpleasant noise-blast task on average, compared with 6.6 minutes when their reaction was not delayed. Conversely, when their anger would have no immediate consequences for themselves, the forced delay actually increased these participants' aggression (they chose 8 minutes suffering for their partner, compared with 5.7 minutes without a delay).

In summary, these results suggests that counting to ten could help stop you from lashing out too harshly when there are obvious consequences for your anger, presumably because the delay gives you time to take these consequences into account before choosing how to act. Backing this interpretation, a number memorisation task during the forced delay removed the calming effect of the delay for the depleted participants who knew their partner could retaliate, probably because they now couldn't use the time to think about the consequences of their choices. Finally, when there are no obvious consequences to an outburst, the results suggest that counting to ten could make you lash out even more, likely because in this kind of situation the delay just gives you more time to stew over whatever provoked you in the first place.

_________________________________ ResearchBlogging.org

Osgood, J., & Muraven, M. (2016). Does counting to ten increase or decrease aggression? The role of state self-control (ego-depletion) and consequences Journal of Applied Social Psychology, 46 (2), 105-113 DOI: 10.1111/jasp.12334

--further reading--
Beat anger by imagining you're a fly on the wall
How anger can make us more rational

Post written by Christian Jarrett (@psych_writer) for the BPS Research Digest.

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