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Both men and women are often ashamed of their anger, although it appears they may experience their anger differently, according to ongoing research. For example, gender socialization can affect how men and women handle their anger, researchers have found.

"Both men and women have been poorly served by the gender socialization they have received," says psychologist Sandra Thomas, PhD, a leading research-er in women's anger who has recently also begun studying men's experiences with anger. "Men have been encouraged to be more overt with their anger. If [boys] have a conflict on the playground, they act it out with their fists. Girls have been encouraged to keep their anger down."

Indeed, anger in men is often viewed as "masculine"--it is seen as "manly" when men engage in fistfights or act their anger out physically, notes Thomas, director of the nursing doctoral program at the University of Tennessee, Knoxville. "For girls, acting out in that way is not encouraged," she says. "Women usually get the message that anger is unpleasant and unfeminine." Therefore, their anger may be misdirected in passive-aggressive maneuvers such as sulking or destructive gossip, she says.

In her view, however, neither approach in its extreme is healthy. It is important, Thomas says, for both men and women to be clear and forthright when they are angry and to use problem-solving techniques in dealing with their anger.

"Things are not getting better in anger behavior," notes Thomas, who cites the many incidences today of violence among children. "We need to understand what anger is about before we can intervene effectively."

Differences in anger expression

Also needed, researchers say, are efforts to dislodge gender stereotypes about anger. June Tangney, PhD, for example, has called into question common assumptions about women and anger, such as the notion that women have trouble with anger. Women don't have a problem with anger--they just manage it differently, says Tangney, professor of psychology at George Mason University.

Women tend not to be as aggressive as men in expressing anger and tend to talk about their anger more, she says. "They are more proactive and use more problem-solving approaches in discussing a problem with a person they are angry with," says Tangney.

And what makes ordinary women angry day-to-day? In 1993, Thomas conducted the Women's Anger Study, a large-scale investigation involving 535 women between the ages of 25 and 66. The study revealed three common roots to women's anger: powerlessness, injustice and the irresponsibility of other people.

While research has not yet suggested that different factors trigger men's anger, researchers continue to uncover differences in how men and women experience it. Such was that case for Raymond DiGiuseppe, PhD, chair of the psychology department at St. John's University in New York, in his research to develop a new anger disorder scale. In a survey of 1,300 people ages 18 to 90, DiGiuseppe investigated 18 subscales of anger, including how individuals experience their anger, how long the anger lasts and what they get angry about. While he found that differences in men's and women's total anger scores were not significant, he did find differences in the way they experience anger. Specifically, men scored higher on physical aggression, passive aggression and experiences of impulsively dealing with their anger. They also more often had a revenge motive to their anger and scored higher on coercing other people.

Women, on the other hand, were found to be angry longer, more resentful and less likely to express their anger, compared with men. DiGuiseppe found that women used indirect aggression by "writing off" a higher number of people--intending to never speak to them again because of their anger.

Anger slowly decreases with age, DiGiuseppe found, and differences in the domains of anger between the sexes decreases for those older than 50, although men are still more likely to be aggressive and women are still more likely to have longer episodes of anger. DiGiuseppe's research will be published this year by Multi-Health Systems, a Canadian publisher of psychological tests.

Future directions

Thomas has expanded the scope of her research and replicated some of her studies on American women's anger with women from different countries, such as France and Turkey. She has also conducted a study aimed at understanding the meaning of men's anger. Her research is awaiting publication in the APA journal Psychology of Men and Masculinity.

Anger researchers Deborah Cox, PhD, Patricia Van Velsor, PhD, and Joseph Hulgus, PhD, are working to validate an anger diversion model. Cox first developed the model with Sally Stabb, PhD, and Karin H. Bruckner, authors of "The Anger Advantage" (Broadway, 2003). The model holds that when individuals bypass awareness of their anger, the diversion process can cause anger symptoms. In support, the team has found women who either try to mask their anger, or externalize and project their anger irresponsibly, were at higher risk for anxiety, nervousness, tension and panic attacks.

Cox, a Southwest Missouri State University psychologist and assistant professor, hopes that researchers will also apply the anger diversion model to men and boys. "It may be that men are more reinforced for using certain diversion forms over others--and more than women," Cox says. "However, it seems that the underlying process may be the same across genders, and it's one that could be translated, 'Your anger is wrong and should be gotten rid of as soon as possible.'"

To get at such complexities, researchers may need to try new approaches, Cox says. "Much of what we must do demands that we talk to women and men and get their stories about anger, versus testing them in a paper-and-pencil type of format," she explains. "Only through getting people's verbatim stories can we get a real sense of how they interpret their own anger."

Further Reading

  • Cox, D.L., Bruckner, K.H., & Stabb, S.D. (2003). The anger advantage. New York: Broadway/Doubleday.

  • DiGiuseppe, R., & Tafrate, R.C. (in press). The anger disorder ScalManual. Toronto: Multi-Health Systems.

  • Thomas, S.P. (1993). Women and anger. New York: Springer.