The Logic of Rage

Neuroscientist Doug Fields was on a trip to Europe when a pickpocket stole his wallet. Doug, normally mild-mannered, became enraged — and his fury turned him into a stranger to himself. This week, we explore the secret logic of irrational anger.

The transcript below may be for an earlier version of this episode. Our transcripts are provided by various partners and may contain errors or deviate slightly from the audio.

Shankar Vedantam: This is Hidden Brain, I'm Shankar Vedantam. When Saru Najarian was about 10, his pastime was collecting baseball and basketball cards. These were hard to come by in Cyprus where he grew up. So when Saru's cousin pestered him to share his cards with her, he always said no, but she didn't give up. As she pestered and begged and pleaded.

Saru Najarian: It came to a boiling point where I got so angry that everything blacked out and I slapped her really hard.

Shankar Vedantam: Saru's arm seemed to act of its own volition. A second later.

Saru Najarian: I came back into the reality and I saw her crying and had no idea what I had done.

Shankar Vedantam: Paula Reed experienced something similar at the same age. She was a budding environmentalist with a peace ecology flag hanging on her bedroom wall. One afternoon, she heard the cracking of trees and a low rumble. She realized that her neighbor was knocking down trees to build himself a shorter driveway. He was using a bulldozer.

Paula Reed: This neighbor came up the road in the bulldozer and was pushing over trees and something in my head just snapped.

Shankar Vedantam: Paula's dad had bought a machete in his travels to South America. Without thinking, Paula seized the weapon. Its blade was about as long as her arm. In shorts and bare feet, she climbed up on the bulldozer and swung the blade. Metal struck metal. As Paula rained down blows, the bulldozer stopped and retreated. Paula chased after it, cutting ribbons in the air with the machete.

Paula Reed: I have no idea where that came from, but I was in a complete wild red rage.

Shankar Vedantam: Today on the show, Wild Red Rage. The moments when we suddenly snap, and animal furies erupt within us. Such rage can harm others, it can harm us. It's easy to think we'd be better off without such wrath. But as blind as uncontrollable anger can be, it turns out we would be worse off without it. The deep logic of irrational rage, this week on Hidden Brain.

Shankar Vedantam: This is the story of a woman who snapped.

Jess Cavender: I would say that I'm a gentle person and that's me putting it optimistically.

Shankar Vedantam: Jess Cavender always thought of herself as a timid person, timid to the point of pushover.

Jess Cavender: My brother wasn't shy about telling me that I was a doormat for most of my life, and I didn't want to see myself as a doormat, but I also didn't have evidence to the contrary.

Shankar Vedantam: In elementary school, for example, Jess saved up years of pocket money and birthday cash, storing her savings in a music box. Her dream, a much coveted trampoline. Finally, one day she had enough money. She and her dad drove to Sam's Club.

Jess Cavender: I bought this trampoline and I was so excited.

Shankar Vedantam: Until her trampoline was taken over by intruders.

Jess Cavender: My two siblings, my older brother and younger sister would bounce on the trampoline as well and sometimes I couldn't get it to myself the way I'd like it.

Shankar Vedantam: Jess's siblings didn't just hog the trampoline, they treated her as if she were an unwelcome guest. Jess tried to get her dad to step in. Instead of helping, he offered her some advice.

Jess Cavender: My dad suggested to me that I charge them to use the trampoline since it was my trampoline and I had done all the work to save for it that I should charge them a fee to use it.

Shankar Vedantam: He might as well have suggested she punch someone in the face. Her siblings didn't even bother arguing with her. They just ignored her.

Jess Cavender: I don't know how I would have ever enforced charging 25 cents for my siblings to use it. They certainly would just be like, "No," walk past me and get on the trampoline.

Shankar Vedantam: Jess did not experience the slights with fury, she accepted them with resignation. Over the years, there were other moments like this, moments that would have sparked anger in some people, but Jess usually kept her cool until one night years later, when she didn't. She was in graduate school, living with two roommates in off-campus housing.

Jess Cavender: It has all of the trimmings of being college living, where you're paying for a lot and not getting very much. And people are packed in.

Shankar Vedantam: Late one night, Jess was jolted awake by a sound.

Jess Cavender: I hear heavy footfalls going down the stairs.

Shankar Vedantam: Jess immediately thought she knew what had happened. Her roommate Kim had torn her Achilles tendon and was wearing a boot. Jess figured that Kim had fallen on the stairs. She leaped out of bed, threw on her robe and opened her bedroom door. Her other roommate, Shelby, opened her door at the same time. She'd also heard the noise.

Jess Cavender: She's looking at me and I'm looking at her and Kim's not at the bottom of the stairs. So we both just run down the stairs to see what had happened. Well, the both of us arrive at the bottom of the stairs and a very large man with my kitchen rag held over his face, comes wheeling out of the kitchen with a gun pointed at us.

Shankar Vedantam: The first thing Jess took in about the man was his size. He was at least six foot five. He was about a head taller than she was.

Jess Cavender: All I could see was his eyes. This glare of his eyes were yellow. And aside from that, really I was staring at the barrel of the gun.

Shankar Vedantam: The man yelled, "Where's the money? Get the money, go upstairs." Standing there in her robe with a gun pointed at her head, Jess did not snap. Instead her mind became cool and analytical. What could she do to get out of the situation? Out of the corner of her eye, she noticed a movement. Another man had emerged from a side room.

Jess Cavender: I know that they want something valuable, and I have nothing. I'm aware that I have no cash, I have no TV screens.

Shankar Vedantam: The man with the gun motioned for the two women to go up the stairs, presumably to fetch their wallets. Shelby, normally a ball of energy, had gone still.

Jess Cavender: I discovered that she's frozen, she isn't blinking, she's not looking at me, she's not moving. So I put my hand on her back and I say, "Everything's going to be okay. We're going upstairs. Just give them what they want."

Shankar Vedantam: As Jess and Shelby climbed the stairs, the robbers came up behind them.

Jess Cavender: One of the guys puts his hand on my butt to push me and that's when it occurred to me that something sexually violent might happen.

Shankar Vedantam: Still, Jess felt no rage. The second robber took Shelby into her room. The first man, the one with the gun followed Jess into her bedroom.

Jess Cavender: And he's yelling, "Get on the bed." And that's when this thought, "There's no way in hell that I will get on this bed. Not for anything. "It's a second-story building, I probably would have jumped out of the window before I actually got on the bed.

Shankar Vedantam: Jess kept thinking, what could she give the man to make him leave?

Jess Cavender: And I'm looking around my room and I'm looking for something of value. I have stacks of books, I have dance clothes, I have all sorts of things that I could not possibly in my mind register giving to him. I'm just looking around for something valuable to give to him so that he will leave. And I looked down and I see my camera.

Shankar Vedantam: The camera she used for work.

Jess Cavender: Now my camera is the main way that I provide for myself, and that's how I was making enough money to really, to feed myself. And so that represented to me my livelihood, my survival. I had a split second emotional response to it, thinking, "No, he doesn't get that." And that's when everything changed.

Shankar Vedantam: Jess did not snap when two men invaded her home, she didn't snap when one of them touched her, she didn't snap when she was forced at gunpoint into her bedroom and told to get on the bed. But when she realized the robber might take her camera...

Jess Cavender: That's when I realized, this person has no right to come in here and to demand my things or to even be in my space. That was really the first time that I had a strong response to this person violating me. I looked at the gun, just squarely faced him in a way that I don't think I've ever done to anyone and said, "Get out, get out of my house. You do not belong here."

Shankar Vedantam: Jess could hear the man's accomplice in the other room shouting, "Shoot her, shoot her." Jess spotted her cell phone. She grabbed it. The robber saw what she was doing.

Jess Cavender: And as I got my hand on it, he jumped on top of me and we were rolling on the floor, fighting each other. He's using one hand to try and pry the cell phone out, and I'm using the same hand that's on the cell phone to dig my fingernails into his skin, and then the other hand to try and pry the gun out of his hand.

Shankar Vedantam: Something primal stirred inside Jess. She was suddenly consumed by blinding rage.

Jess Cavender: His chest is on my back, his arms are around my arms. He's completely crouched over and around me as we're falling on our sides and I'm kicking and scratching.

Shankar Vedantam: The one thought flooding her mind, not survival.

Jess Cavender: Don't let him win. Somehow that mattered. I was using every ounce of my physical strength and not caring that I was inflicting pain and actually being like, "That's fine. That's the point of to get this phone back out of his hand." I don't know why I was more focused on the phone than the gun, but I was.

Shankar Vedantam: The second robber barged into the bedroom. There were now two of them in the room, but she had no thought for risk or danger. Something new had taken over.

Jess Cavender: I just started screaming. A full-on, high-pitch, bloodcurdling screech of a scream. And apparently my scream was so loud that I woke up one neighbor who was wearing headphones and then the other neighbor who was asleep on the other side.

Shankar Vedantam: The men were so startled by the screams that they took off. One grabbed Jess's laptop on his way out. Jess's scream woke up her other roommate. Unbelievably, Kim had slept through the whole thing.

Jess Cavender: And she opened the door and says, "What's wrong?" I was like, "Call the police!"

Shankar Vedantam: In that moment, Jess Cavender, who had lived her life as a timid person, had no sense that she had acted out of character.

Jess Cavender: All that unfolded was in no way, shape or form unnatural or surprising to me in the moment, it was what needed to happen. I wasn't surprised at myself until a bit later when I was like, "I cannot, for the life of me, believe that I looked at a guy who's holding a gun at my head and decided that I was going to yell at him."

Shankar Vedantam: Or fight.

Jess Cavender: Yeah. Or fight.

Shankar Vedantam: Jess's story reveals a strange truth about our capacity for fury. It often arrives without warning. It seems to have a mind of its own. We can ignore serious provocations for years and then boom, we snap. Only later do we look back at our actions in wonder. When we come back, understanding the triggers that can push even the most mild-mannered among us to see red. Stay with us.

Shankar Vedantam: A defining quality of wild red rage is that it often comes out of nowhere. It takes over our minds and deprives us of reason and logic. When Jess Cavender lost it and literally fought a robber who had a gun pointed at her head, she took a very serious risk. She and her roommates could have ended up dead. In retrospect, you can say it was foolhardy and irrational. All this presents a mystery. It's taken millions of years of evolution to produce the human brain. It has an exquisite capacity for reason and logic. Why would natural selection install a circuit breaker to undermine our capacity for logical thinking?

Shankar Vedantam: Doug Fields has long puzzled over this question. His interest in rage grows out of his fascination with the brain, but it's also based on an unforgettable personal experience. The story he told me has the ring of a Hollywood thriller, but with a catch: Doug, our leading man is not a muscle-bound hero. He's a neuroscientist and not just any neuroscientist, but a walking stereotype of a neuroscientist. Here's his daughter, Kelly Fields.

Kelly Fields: We'd be watching a movie together and there's some car accident or some big scene going on and he'll just chime in and be like, "Wow, you can't see the shadow behind that plant in the corner anymore, did you notice that they changed the lighting for no reason, even though it's the same scene?" And I'd be like, "No, actually I was watching the car accident." So yeah, just a very typical nerd.

Shankar Vedantam: Doug is five foot seven and weighs maybe 135 pounds.

Kelly Fields: Glasses, thin hair.

Doug Fields: Don't think of Sean Connery or Matt Damon, you got to think of Woody Allen here.

Shankar Vedantam: In 2007, Doug was scheduled to go to Barcelona, to present some research at a neuroscience conference. He decided to turn a work trip into a father-daughter vacation and took Kelly with him. She was 17, he was 57. Their first stop was Paris. Waiting in line at the Eiffel Tower, Kelly got a new glimpse into how her dad's mind worked.

Kelly Fields: A couple came up to us and was speaking perfect English with American accents and they were very nice, and I just noticed they were standing too close to us. I kept glancing behind us like, "Why are you standing so close?" And I noticed this woman's hand near his pants, and then I look again and I noticed his pocket is unzipped and I just whispered to my dad, "I think they're trying to rob you."

Shankar Vedantam: Doug was completely unfazed.

Kelly Fields: My dad informed me that that was a decoy wallet.

Shankar Vedantam: Your dad had a decoy wallet?

Kelly Fields: You're just as surprised as I was. I was like, "What?" He had this special wallet that he would keep in his front pocket. It was special because of the way it was cut to fit into his front pocket. And that was his wallet. Sorry, I'm blowing all your covers, dad. And then he had a fake wallet in his back pocket with not a lot of money in it and a few fake credit cards.

Shankar Vedantam: Doug came up with a strategy many vacations ago.

Doug Fields: When you travel, it's a wise idea not to have all your money and credit cards in one place, you can get robbed or mugged. And so the idea is, if it's a pickpocket they get a wallet that's useless, that doesn't matter. But if you're mugged, you can hand them the wallet or throw it on the ground and run. So that's why I do that.

Shankar Vedantam: For anyone keeping score, that's neuroscientist, one, pickpockets, zero. After visiting the Eiffel Tower, father and daughter went back to their hotel and packed their bags. The next day they took the Metro to the airport. This is when Doug broke one of his cardinal rules.

Doug Fields: I violated my rule of having money in multiple places because TSA makes that difficult when you have to go through inspections. So I figured we're just going to take the ride to the airport. So I had everything in my wallet.

Shankar Vedantam: Everything in one wallet.

Doug Fields: We got on the Metro, lots of people, then we came to a stop and everybody on the Metro train left, except one lady who looked very sympathetic at us. And I felt that my wallet was gone.

Shankar Vedantam: They had lost their money and credit cards. That's neuroscientist, one, pickpockets, one. Doug and Kelly still had their passports, so they were able to get on their flight to Barcelona where Doug's conference was being held.

Doug Fields: If you have your wallet stolen in Europe, how do you check into a hotel? What are you going to do? What ultimately happened is I managed to reach my brother in the United States and he arranged to wire us cash. My brother had picked this place for us to get money at random on the internet.

Shankar Vedantam: Doug and Kelly got in a cab and gave the driver the address of the bank where they were to pick up the money, except it wasn't a bank.

Doug Fields: So we got in a cab, took us way out of the Barcelona tourist area to the most seedy neighborhood you've ever seen.

Shankar Vedantam: As vacant shops and trash-strewn streets, replaced sprawling parks and cafes, father and daughter got more and more anxious.

Doug Fields: Our adrenaline is coming out our ears already, because we've just been pickpocketed and had all this stress, and we end up in a seedy part of town at an internet cafe.

Kelly Fields: And there was just a small dingy building full of really big men, basically.

Shankar Vedantam: The burly men were staring at a TV. When Doug and Kelly entered, the men silently turned to watch. Doug went up to the cashier.

Doug Fields: I gave him this receipt. He reaches in his pocket, pulls out this wad of money and starts peeling off a thousand dollars or something.

Kelly Fields: And we were just standing there looking at them like, "Are you contacting your friends to come and rob us?"

Doug Fields: Kelly and I just know we're going to get robbed again. It was terrible.

Shankar Vedantam: They didn't get robbed.

Doug Fields: The cab stayed there and we got in the cab and then we went back.

Shankar Vedantam: The next morning, they resolved to put the unpleasantness of the previous days behind them. Doug had to give a talk at the conference that afternoon, in the morning, he and Kelly decided to visit a famous Barcelona cathedral. Now, it would seem like too much bad luck to get robbed again, but...

Doug Fields: We're coming up the steps of the Metro station, and suddenly I felt this tug at my pant leg and I slapped the zipper pocket above my knee and my wallet was gone.

Shankar Vedantam: This wasn't a decoy wallet, it was the real thing with all the cash that Doug's brother had wired him from the United States. Something snapped inside the 57-year-old neuroscientist. He was done being used as a portable ATM by European thieves.

Doug Fields: I shot my arm back.

Shankar Vedantam: The robber hadn't gotten far. He was right behind Doug.

Doug Fields: He started to turn away from me and I snagged him in the crook of my arm.

Shankar Vedantam: He had the robber around the neck. Now what? Doug didn't have to ask himself the question. His arm seemed to know what to do.

Doug Fields: I flipped him over my hip to the ground on the pavement and jumped on his back and put him in a choke hold. And then this thought bubbles up to my cerebral cortex. "What are you doing?" If you're robbed you should give him the money. But I was just a spectator in this whole thing.

Shankar Vedantam: Kelly, who was a couple of paces in front of Doug, turned around to see something she never expected to see in all her life: wild red rage from her father.

Kelly Fields: And I see my dad choking this random person. He has this young guy in a headlock and I was just looking at him like, "What is going on?" Then I hear my dad yell, "My wallet." And when he says my wallet, I knew instantly what had happened. Somebody had pickpocketed him again.

Doug Fields: So I'm on the ground with this guy and he's in his 20s. I'm just thinking back to watching my kids wrestle and I'm trying to do what they do. I'm thinking hip control, I got to keep this down, keep him pinned and I yell, "Call the police, call the police. I've got him." And there's no reply. And then from my perspective on the ground, all I saw were men's feet circling around me. And I then realized they were all part of a gang.

Shankar Vedantam: The thief somehow managed to fling Doug's wallet towards an accomplice. It was now Kelly's turn to do something crazy.

Doug Fields: The next thing I see is a woman's hand flying through the air and I recognize it as Kelly. Kelly was captain of the ultimate Frisbee team at that time, and she's doing a full-on layout on solid concrete to deflect the disc and taps the wallet into my outstretched right hand.

Kelly Fields: And as I jump up to my feet, and I'm looking around like, "Okay, now what?" And I see these big guys and I watched, I followed the gaze of one of these guys, I follow his eyes as he looks down at the ground, and I see that he sees my dad's Blackberry. And as I'm locking eyes with him, I jumped on my dad's Blackberry, just like a football player would grab a football or something, which is a funny image to me because it was just a Blackberry. So I'm on the ground hugging this little Blackberry and I'm like, "Dad, I got your phone."

Kelly Fields: And I'm yelling because there's now a circle of men around me and I can see through their feet, there's a circle of men around my father as well. And he has his wallet and he knew the next move. And that was to let the guy go.

Shankar Vedantam: That's neuroscientist, two, pickpockets, one.

Doug Fields: When I let the bandit go, that I had in the choke hold, he scooted away on his back, on his butt, like a crab and he pointed at me going, "Crazy man, crazy man." And now I'm staring eye to eye with the ringleader and all these other guys, so what am I going to do now? I had so much adrenaline going, which I've never felt before, I was ready to throw him into his accomplices and knock him down the steps into the Metro station. And there was no question whether I could do that or not.

Kelly Fields: And then yeah, a really pretty well-dressed elderly man with a cane just walks up really casually and said, "Yeah, he's no crazy. Go." And they all fled like a bunch of birds leaving a telephone wire or something. They were just like, poof. And I'm just trying to process it all like, "What just happened?" "Oh, my dad must be a spy, of course and he just did some spy things when that guy stole his wallet. He's not really a scientist at all."

Shankar Vedantam: Doug and Kelly stumbled away from the scene. Their hearts were racing.

Kelly Fields: My dad says, "We have to get a knife." And I was like, "What?" Okay, now I'm concerned, that's a horrible idea on multiple levels. That's a really bad idea. And I couldn't believe that my father, who I had only ever seen use knives for cutting vegetables or firewood was now suggesting like, "We need to go get a weapon." And I was like, "Oh, okay. I need to step in, in the decision making process. That's insane. We're not getting a knife."

Shankar Vedantam: Doug was sure that they were being tracked by members of the street gang. And it turns out he was not being paranoid. He and Kelly really were being followed.

Doug Fields: Now it turned into a scene out of a spy movie. We're running down, back alleys, we're running through restaurants, going into shops, going in one door out the back.

Kelly Fields: And so we go into a different shop and I bought this skirt so we could try and change clothing, which was really bizarre and it's funny that we thought that would help, and we get out of the store. And I remember seeing another person walking towards us on one side of the street and then a group of men walking towards us on the other side. And my dad just goes, "We need to cross the street. Ready, go." No conversation, and we just started booking it across this crowded road and we run across the street, we realized these people are following us for sure.

Kelly Fields: We see them now crossing the crosswalk to come to our side of the street again, and we're like, "What do we do?" And he goes, "Let's get a taxi." And we run into the street and he hits the hood of a taxi driving by and he's like, "We need to get in."

Shankar Vedantam: When they got out of the taxi, they still hadn't shaken the robbers. They jumped in another cab and asked the driver to get them the hell out of Barcelona.

Doug Fields: Then went to the next city with 170 Euro cab fare. I still remember.

Shankar Vedantam: It was here far outside of Barcelona that Doug's heart rate started to slow. And as his normal logical brain came back online, he couldn't believe what he had just done.

Kelly Fields: He is like, "I should have given them my wallet. That's crazy. Why did I do that? Why was I doing that? Never do that. If this ever happens to you again, give them your wallet."

Shankar Vedantam: Doug's behavior disturbed him as a father, but it also disturbed him as a neuroscientist who thought he had a good handle on how the brain worked, on how his own brain worked.

Doug Fields: From a neuroscience perspective, how does this happen? That you can instantly do this aggression without even being aware, and it's all unconscious? If something in my environment could cause me to suddenly risk life and limb with no conscious thought, I wanted to understand how that worked at a neuroscience level. What's going on in the brain?

Shankar Vedantam: The question again was why evolution, which has sculpted our brains and bodies to be skilled survival machines, would preserve systems in the brain that caused us to act with unthinking haste, and violence. Haste and violence that can place our own lives at great risk. Doug eventually realized that the answer lay in the question itself. It was all about speed.

Doug Fields: The conscious brain is too slow and it doesn't have the capacity. So when you're faced with a sudden threat, like a fist thrown to your chin, you have to respond faster than the conscious brain can handle it.

Shankar Vedantam: There are lots of things that can be done slowly, but surviving an immediate threat is not one of them. When you're dealing with a predator or some other imminent danger, you have to act fast.

Doug Fields: So nature has developed high-speed pathways to the amygdala, all our senses go there before they go to the cortex, which is where we have consciousness. And that so you can have this rapid response to a real threat. Now, we've all experienced this, you're on a basketball court and a wayward basketball comes towards you and you duck and turn and you bat it away. And then you go, "What was that?"

Doug Fields: Your unconscious mind detected because visual input went first to your amygdala, that something was in your visual space that shouldn't be there, like a motion detector, but not only that, then put you on a very definitive course with a complex behavior. You think about the behavior where you turn and you intersect this thing and you bat it away.

Shankar Vedantam: Rational thought isn't just unhelpful. When that basketball is hurtling toward you, it's actually counterproductive. Being deliberate can end up getting you smashed in the face. But short-circuiting logic creates dangers, especially when you're in the grip of an emotion like rage. You can literally stop thinking about your arm as your arm. It becomes a weapon that can be wielded, deployed, sacrificed.

Doug Fields: The brain's threat detection mechanism, which is highly controlled to engage in a violent, aggressive interaction, risks life and limb.

Shankar Vedantam: Most of the time we are well-served by being logical and deliberate. But on rare occasions, it's helpful to act with unthinking haste. The operative word here is rare. What Doug has found is that wild red rage erupts in very specific situations, often when you're defending your most vital interests.

Doug Fields: The brain controls this response, so that's only tripped by very specific triggers.

Shankar Vedantam: Doug says most of these triggers are related to our basic needs. For example, you can easily imagine an animal or a human reacting with protective rage when its own life is in danger.

Doug Fields: Life or limb. If you're attacked, you will fight back. There's nothing to lose. All animals will do that.

Shankar Vedantam: Another thing most animals will do, protect their young. You know the rule, never get between a mama bear and her cub. And while you're at it, don't try to steal her dinner.

Doug Fields: Resources. That was the other thing that was tripped when my wallet got snagged. Even a family puppy will snap your hand if you get too close to the dish.

Shankar Vedantam: The list goes on. Don't try to take my mate, don't encroach on my territory, don't corner me.

Doug Fields: If an animal is trapped, it will use aggression to break free. I mean, an animal in a trap will chew its leg off, but so will a human.

Shankar Vedantam: These triggers remind us of a truth we cannot avoid. Humans, at the end of the day, are animals. But we're also more complicated than this list may suggest. One story that made an impression on Doug involved a man named Ray Young. He was 67 years old and lived in Silver Spring, Maryland, where Doug lived too. Ray was waiting his turn at a post office one day when he saw what he thought was another customer cut the line.

Doug Fields: The next thing that happened is unbelievable. He pulled out a knife and started knifing the guy viciously. I went to many of his trials and he had no record of violence, no arrest record, it's completely out of character.

Shankar Vedantam: Ray snapped because he was defending something that is of vital importance to humans.

Doug Fields: Order in society, this guy broke the rules, he cut in line.

Shankar Vedantam: We all depend on a functioning social order. A stable, rule-following society is as essential to our survival as food and shelter. We're willing to fight to maintain such order.

Doug Fields: In social animals, in order to maintain order, following the rules, aggression is what is used. That's still what we use, we use violence.

Shankar Vedantam: Now, it's not as if every threat produces mindless rage. Plenty of people see the social order breached or get insulted and don't turn into Rambo. The threshold for snapping and the drivers of violence can vary between people.

Doug Fields: If you grow up in a hostile inner city, you're going to have a hair trigger because you'll be victimized if you're not. We can see those changes in the brain. But that also means you're more likely to misfire. So sometimes the right thing to do is to be the marine and charge after the threat, and sometimes that's going to get you killed. But as a species, the group as a whole will survive because somebody is going to do one thing and somebody is going to do something else.

Shankar Vedantam: Doug says stress is often a factor in sending us over the edge. He sees stress at play in Jess Cavender's response to the armed robber. She didn't scream and dig her hands into the attacker when she first saw him. She tried to appease him.

Doug Fields: She had been enduring this for a while and stress was building, and it tripped that trigger.

Shankar Vedantam: The resource trigger.

Doug Fields: She said that the most valuable thing in her life that she depended on for food and everything was her camera. And they weren't going to get it.

Shankar Vedantam: Now, there is a wrong lesson you can draw from this account of rage. You could say, "Look, Jess lost it, and because she became enraged, she managed to save her camera. Doug was furious at being robbed and his rage allowed him to take his wallet back from the Barcelona thieves." These examples suggest that rage always results in good outcomes, that you end up better off when you violently lose your temper.

Shankar Vedantam: What this misses is that literally no one in their right mind will tell you to attack a man with a gun or to take on a street gang in a foreign country. Risking your life to save some money or to protect a camera is the very definition of crazy. When we come back, why you can't understand the deep logic of blinding rage by looking only at situations where things turn out well for you.

Shankar Vedantam: Mohamed Bouazizi was sick of the police and their demands for bribes. He was a produce seller in the city of Sidi Bouzid in Tunisia, in North Africa. The harassment felt endless. On a Friday morning in December 2010, Mohamed had an encounter with the police. Years later, there are still varying accounts of what happened. According to some, a cop confiscated the scales that Mohammed used to sell his produce. Others said an officer wouldn't let him set up his stand. Some accounts said Mohamed was slapped or perhaps kicked.

Shankar Vedantam:

The street vendor did what citizens are supposed to do. He went to the authorities to protest his mistreatment. But when he got to the government building to lodge a complaint, he was barred from entry. Mohamed was gripped by an intense feeling of injustice. And then he snapped. He doused himself with gasoline. Standing in front of the government building that had shut the door on him, he struck a match and set himself ablaze. One of the last things onlookers heard from him were these words, "How do you expect me to make a living?"

Shankar Vedantam: By the time the fire was dowsed and Mohamed was rushed to a hospital, burns covered 90% of his body. He died a few weeks later. His story shows the self-destructive power of wild red rage, but it also reveals the hidden logic of fury. Thousands of Mohamed's fellow Tunisians showed up at his funeral. On social media, he was dubbed a martyr. Members of the crowd shouted "Farewell, Mohamed, we will avenge you. We weep for you today. We will make those who caused your death weep."

Shankar Vedantam: Ten days after Mohamed's death, with escalating protests around the country, the president of Tunisia ended a 23-year autocratic reign and fled the country. Within weeks, protests in Tunisia spread to other Arab countries in what came to be known as the Arab Spring.

Speaker 7: It is the end of an era in Tunisia.

Speaker 8: President Hosni Mubarak has stepped down.

Speaker 9: Libya's ouster...

Shankar Vedantam: Neuroscientist Doug Fields has found that we're capable of fury when we want to defend our lives or protect family or guard resources. Rage can be triggered when we want to maintain the social order. It also serves another useful purpose. Rage acts as a signaling device.

Amia Srinivasan: If you look at the long history of social protest. It's just clear that powerful emotions like anger and rage have a huge, and have had a huge role to play in galvanizing people, motivating them, bringing them together in movements towards increased justice.

Shankar Vedantam: This is Amia Srinivasan, a philosopher at the University of Oxford. Amia recognizes that rage does have costs, but she wants us to remember that it can be useful to communities, causes and individuals.

Amia Srinivasan: Anger can play this clarifying role for myself, so it can help me understand what's going on. It can make me come to certain moral and political realizations I didn't have before. I come to realize there's actually an injustice at work.

Shankar Vedantam: The benefits of anger don't stop with the clarity it brings to us as individuals.

Amia Srinivasan: Getting angry can act as a certain warning signal to other people. And in fact, there's a lot of socio-psychological evidence that suggests that getting angry can be an effective means of changing other people's behavior. Counter to the standard liberal understanding where calm group deliberation is the only way to get people to change, actually getting angry sometimes is an effective social signal to motivate other people.

Shankar Vedantam: In fact, Amia argues, it's important when we talk about fury to distinguish between what might be counterproductive or even harmful to individuals in the short run and the usefulness of that fury to movements, groups and causes.

Amia Srinivasan: Individual anger can often spread and become communal anger and collective anger. And collective anger has extraordinary forms.

Shankar Vedantam: She asked me to think of an example in an interpersonal setting. Imagine this scenario: you're in a romantic relationship and your partner cheats on you.

Amia Srinivasan: I mean, it might be that getting angry at your cheating lover just encourages that cheating lover to cheat more. And if your lover were to say to you, "Well, you shouldn't get angry at me because it just makes me cheat more." I mean, that's an infuriating response and it's infuriating because it treats your anger as just an instrument, an instrument for encouraging or discouraging his or her behavior. Whereas in fact, anger like other moral emotions is something that makes a claim about the world.

Shankar Vedantam: An angry spouse does more than show her displeasure at infidelity. She's also sending a signal about the kind of behavior we think is appropriate in a society, in interpersonal relationships. Her anger sends a message to other spouses. Obviously, this is not happening at a conscious level. Rage can prompt you to take a stand about something and make you incur personal costs.

Shankar Vedantam: By short-circuiting reason, it makes you ignore those costs. Your actions might be personally harmful, but it can help the group to which you belong. This is why natural selection might conserve such behavior.

Doug Fields: We have these circuits because we need them, we have violence because unfortunately we need them. We don't call it snapping when the outcome is good. Then we call it heroism or quick thinking.

Shankar Vedantam: One example of unthinking rage that can produce personal harms and societal benefits comes from something I've noticed on the road, including in my own behavior. Let's say I'm driving on a highway and the lane is narrowing. There's a sign that says the lane is merging left in a thousand feet. So I follow the sign and merge left, but lots of cars behind me don't merge, they zoom ahead and merge in front of me, basically jumping the line.

Shankar Vedantam: I like to think of myself as a cool-headed person, but in situations like this, I sometimes move my car into the side lane and hit the brakes to prevent the side zoomers from cutting ahead. It's crazy. I'm not a police officer. I'm in a tiny sedan with a bunch of SUV's on my tail. But when I block these cars, I'm sending a signal, a costly signal. I'm saying I am willing to incur personal costs to enforce a social norm.

Amia Srinivasan: So imagine lots of people were protesting in precisely the way that you protest on the road, then it would have a huge effect on people's driving behavior, a huge positive effect on people's driving behavior.

Shankar Vedantam: Rage, in other words, can be productive not because it benefits us or our individual self-interest, but because it helps the groups to which we belong. Rage, in fact, might be one way that nature gets us to prioritize the interest of our groups over our narrow self-interest. By disabling logic and impairing reason, we can be prompted to do things that we would never do if we were only looking out for ourselves.

Doug Fields: So somebody violates a social norm and we become angry. And again, anger has prepared you to fight. And as we know, sometimes these turn out tragically. People get into a fight on the road and pull out a gun.

Shankar Vedantam: Acting in the interest of a group is not always the right or virtuous thing. Terrorist organizations have long used rage as a recruiting tool for new followers. The anger of partisan politics can cause us to think more about the wellbeing of narrow groups, like our political parties, rather than the wellbeing of larger groups like our nation.

Shankar Vedantam: Fury can drive massacres, wars and genocide. All this leaves us in a bind. If we were to eliminate rage or to logically determine when to get angry, we lose the speed and potency of sudden anger. But when we allow our furies to flare unchecked, we can cause senseless damage to ourselves and others. Centuries ago, the philosopher Aristotle said, "Anybody can become angry, that's easy, but to be angry with the right person and to the right degree and at the right time and for the right purpose and in the right way, that is not within everybody's power and is not easy."

Shankar Vedantam: Hidden Brain is produced by Hidden Brain Media. Midroll Media is our exclusive advertising sales partner. Our audio production team includes Brigid McCarthy, Laura Kwerel, Autumn Barnes, and Andrew Chadwick. Tara Boyle is our Executive Producer. I'm Hidden Brain's Executive Editor. Special thanks this week to our former producers, Rhaina Cohen, Parth Shah and Jenny Schmidt, who played vital roles in building this episode. Audio mix by Rob Byers, Johnny Vince Evans, and Michael Raphael, at Final Final V2.

Shankar Vedantam: Our unsung hero today is Demian Perry. Demian has helped me over the past year with various elements of setting up Hidden Brain Media, our new public radio production company. He has been an invaluable source of support and strategic guidance. I think of Demian as the Swiss Army knife of consultants. He doesn't just come up with solutions to every kind of problem, but is also a constant source of kindness, humor and good cheer. We plan to collaborate with him in lots of ways in the future. Thank you Demian, for your broad talents and deep friendship.

Shankar Vedantam: For more Hidden Brain, you can follow us on Facebook and Twitter. Find more information about us at hiddenbrain.org. If you have a great personal story that would make for a Hidden Brain episode, like the story that Doug and Kelly Fields told us today, please find a quiet room and record a short voice memo on your phone. Email it to us at [email protected]

Shankar Vedantam: If you like this episode and like our show, please tell your friends. If they don't know how to subscribe to our podcast, please show them. Next week on the show, Beyond Doom Scrolling. In a year full of truly terrible events, we consider what might be going right in the world. Thank you for listening. I'm Shankar Vedantam.

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