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How to smother your anger with a piece of paper

Anger researchers have a strategy to keep your anger under control at work.

Anger researchers have a strategy to keep your anger under control at work. Photo: Getty

Say you’re a hothead, quick to rise to anger, and you want to reform. It might pay to carry a small notepad and pen in your pocket. This is the advice of science.

It goes like this. Someone has insulted you. Or taken the last piece of pizza. And you feel yourself about to go off like a volcano.

That’s when it’s time to take out that pen and paper. And write down your feelings. Use all the rude words in the world if you like.

And then … you tear up the paper, and throw it in the bin, along with your violent feelings.

You’re now calm once more. Until next time.

Seriously?

This process is much like a Japanese tradition called hakidashisara. This is where people write their negative thoughts on a plate and then destroy it.

One might suppose it’s the smashing of the plate that makes you feel better.

But a new study from the Nagoya University Graduate School of Informatics has found that no, you don’t need the loud crashing and ceramic splinters going everywhere.

How do they know this?

Because, they carried out an experiment that would have been a lot of fun for one group, and a cause for rage in another.

One can easily imagine how the tormentors must have chuckled, and the torment must have seethed.

What happened in the experiment?

The project was led by Associate Professor Nobuyuki Kawai from Nagoya’s Laboratory for Comparative Cognition and Neurobiology.

He and a graduate student Yuta Kanaya recruited 57 students “to write brief opinions about important social problems, such as whether smoking in public should be outlawed”.

The participants believed their opinions about social issues mattered. They didn’t know they were chumps. They were told that doctoral students would evaluate their writing.

These doctoral students were the tormentors.

Regardless of what the participants wrote, “the evaluators scored them low on intelligence, interest, friendliness, logic and rationality”.

To put the boot in, the doctoral students delivered, in writing, an insult: “I cannot believe an educated person would think like this. I hope this person learns something while at the university.”

Piece of paper to the emotional rescue

When the recruits received the unkind feedback, they were asked to write about how they felt. They were told to focus on what triggered their emotions.

One group of participants was told to either “dispose of the paper they wrote in a trash can or keep it in a file on their desk”.

A second group was told to destroy the document in a shredder or put it in a plastic box.

The students were then asked to rate their anger after the insult, and after either disposing of or keeping the paper.

Obviously, all participants reported rage after receiving the insults.

However, the anger levels among the group who discarded or destroyed their hurt feelings on paper, dissipated. They got over it.

Meanwhile, the group that held on to its insult “experienced only a small decrease in their overall anger”.

Dr Kawai imagines his research could “help businesspeople who find themselves in stressful situations”.

This makes sense, for as far as offices usually have some paper and pens lying around. One supposes though, that in a paper-free office, rage is more likely to go unchecked.

“We expected that our method would suppress anger to some extent,” said Kawai.

“However, we were amazed that anger was eliminated almost entirely.”

He said the research was important “because controlling anger at home and in the workplace can reduce negative consequences in our jobs and personal lives”.

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