Comparison of anger expression in men and women reveals surprising differences

By Rebecca Sladek Nowlis on January 28, 2000

Because men and women perceive anger differently, they experience and handle
feelings of frustration and rage in different ways, according to a study by
researchers at Southwest Missouri State University (SMSU).

On the surface, men seem to embrace their anger and use it to their advantage
whereas women view anger as being counter-productive.  But in day to day
interactions, women appear to take advantage of their anger just as frequently
as men, the researchers reported.

The study findings will be presented as part of a symposium on women’s anger on
Friday, January 28, 2000 at the 11th International Congress on Women’s Health
Issues held in San Francisco.  The Congress is sponsored by the University of
California, San Francisco’s School of Nursing in affiliation with the
International Council on Women’s Health Issues and other co-sponsoring
institutions.

“Women may be uncomfortable with feeling angry, but when you get right down to
it, they often act on their anger just as well as men do,” said Deborah Cox,
PhD, SMSU psychologist and assistant professor in the department of guidance
and counseling and principal investigator of the study.  “Women seem to be more
comfortable holding anger in, but when the situation calls for it, they act on
their feelings.”  Cox is co-author of the book Women’s Anger: Clinical and
Developmental Perspectives.

The study examined how men and women express their anger as well as their
tendency to act on their own behalf.  Some psychologists believe assertiveness
and self-promoting behaviors, historically thought of as “masculine,” are
related to the ability to express anger outwardly and directly.  The idea is
that protecting one’s rights and self-interests involves the ability to channel
anger and create change, for example, by verbally expressing displeasure.

The researchers gave 80 men and 123 women a collection of five routine
questionnaires used to assess anger expression and personality traits such as
assertiveness, self-esteem, sense of effectiveness, and expectations for
success.  Participants were volunteers from a variety of occupational and
socioeconomic backgrounds recruited from schools, college campuses, retail
businesses, churches, and other workplaces in the Midwestern United States. 
The study subjects rated themselves on nearly 200 traits and scenarios directly
or indirectly related to anger expression and self-promotional “masculine”
traits.  In addition, a subset of ten women were interviewed in a group setting
on their experiences and use of anger to create change in their own lives.

The researchers found that men felt less effective and less instrumental when
forced to hold their anger in, whereas women didn’t feel nearly as constricted
when they didn’t express their anger directly.  They also found a correlation
between expressing one’s anger outwardly and being assertive in men, but not in
women.

“If we look at the questionnaire results, men felt less effective overall when
they reported an inward or suppressive style of expressing their anger, whereas
for women, this relationship did not emerge,” said Cox.  “In the focus group
interviews, several women told us they felt that their anger was disabling. 
They felt ashamed of feeling angry and tried to control it, hide it, and
apologize for it.”

Although women had fairly negative views about their anger in general, the
in-depth conversations revealed that in numerous incidences, women did, in
fact, draw upon their anger to affect change, from pushing for divorce to
challenging incorrect bills.  Women can and do use their anger, although they
may call it something else, like frustration, said Cox.

“It looks as if women may be assertive in different ways,” said Cox.  “Perhaps
women feel more effective if they selectively demonstrate their anger on the
outside.  Because of societal expectations that women camouflage or ignore
their anger, they may have developed alternative routes to getting the things
they want besides directly using their anger.”

The multi-disciplinary symposium on women’s anger will also include research on
women’s anger at work, cross-cultural expressions of anger and power, anger
associated with childbirth, and the complexities of categorizing anger.