Why Do We Blow Up at People?


Have you ever witnessed one coworker completely explode at another coworker for a seemingly minor incident? Or maybe you’ve witnessed a similar blow up in public, a customer towards a retail clerk. And no doubt when it happens to a celebrity, it’s all over the gossip news outlets. Maybe you have even found yourself in one of these scenarios, either as the aggressor or the recipient. Why do generally kind, well-behaved adults act out in such a way?

These following three psychological theories might help us better understand why people, ourselves included, act out of character and blow up at other people under certain circumstances. And understanding why we behave the way we do is the first step to becoming better at controlling our own behavior and becoming more tolerant and compassionate towards the behavior of others.

Social Comparison Theory

As the name states, this theory says that we are always comparing ourselves with others. We compare our appearance, intelligence, success, skills, talent, place in life, etc. with other people that we might consider either above us and below us. And naturally, we feel better about ourselves around those who have less, and conversely we feel bad about ourselves when we see those who have more. Social Comparison Theory has become even more prevalent with the emergence of social media. Many times, sites like Facebook can damage our mood and self-esteem if we are constantly bombarded with posts and images of other people’s success and happiness. We may not want to admit it, but our own self-worth is all too often dictated by how we compare to others. Admitting and acknowledging this theory, however, might then help us to control it and realize the dangers in this way of thinking.

The Frustration-Aggression Hypothesis

The hypothesis here, supported by much research, is that frustration leads to aggression. Road rage is a prime example of this. People stuck in traffic or dealing with inconsiderate drivers become frustrated and then this frustration turns into aggressive driving and behavior. It is easy to see how this idea can transfer over to the work environment. If you work day in, day out with co-workers who frustrate you for one reason or the other, or if the work setting in general promotes frustration and negativity rather than positive productivity, then one can see how frustration can build up over time and turn into aggressive behavior.

The Conflict Between the Superego and the Id

The basis of this idea, popularized by Freud, is that we are in a constant struggle between our impulses (Id), or how we want to behave, versus how we should behave (Superego), as dictated by the rules of society. Each one of us has impulses, feelings, and desires that may not be positive or even acceptable in society, but we begin learning at a very young age that we must keep these impulses quiet and not act upon them if we want to peacefully coexist with others. In fact, keeping some of our impulses at bay is one of the most important and difficult things we do in life. There are times, however, when it becomes too difficult to control our impulses and we may act inappropriately or our of character.

The biggest take-away from these theories is simply to understand them and acknowledge that they exist in all of us. If we can recognize and admit that these ideas are at play, then we may become better at controlling our own behavior, and we also may become more compassionate, understanding individuals who are more willing to forgive others.

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