Editor’s note: This article was originally published in 2019.
IN THE 1980s, Frank Senko found himself behind the wheel of his car for several hours each day, commuting. He didn’t really care for music, but he didn’t want to be bored. So he tuned into talk radio.
And then he started to change.
Frank had always been the neighborhood “fun dad,” goofy and friendly; he was a Democrat and a “hippie before there were hippies,” his daughter said — happy to live and let live. Not anymore. “He became more irritable, cranky, irascible, a little more judgmental with people,” said Jen Senko, his daughter.
It got worse. After Frank retired in the early 1990s, he discovered Rush Limbaugh’s immensely popular daily radio show. “He began having these three-hour Limbaugh lunches in the kitchen,” Senko said. Her mother couldn’t stand the sound of Limbaugh’s voice — “He always seemed to be yelling,” she’d say — and so she had her lunch in the living room. Not long after, Frank installed heavy sliding glass doors between the two rooms so he could listen undisturbed.
A man who’d made his children read for an hour before bedtime, who always told them that higher education was the most worthwhile thing they could do, became suspicious of universities as liberal incubators. A man who used to stop people on the street when he heard an accent he didn’t recognize to say hello now didn’t like immigrants or Hispanic people. A man who’d welcomed his children’s gay friends into his home “didn’t want it in his face” anymore.
“He became a person we hated being around and we didn’t know. It was like that movie [Invasion of the Body Snatchers]: ‘What happened to Dad?’” said Senko. “It was a really horrible period of time for us . . . It was a nightmare, both my brothers blocked him, I blocked him.” Senko’s stomach clenched every time she thought of visiting. Her dad was angry all the time. And Senko knew exactly what was to blame: The steady drip-feed of outrage he listened to every day.
Senko turned the story of her dad’s descent into anger into a 2016 documentary called “The Brainwashing of My Dad,” narrated by Matthew Modine. The film was partly funded by 947 Kickstarter donations, many from people who had dads, moms, and loved ones who had plunged down the rage-filled rabbit hole of talk news and emotionally predatory media platforms. Exposure to angry media had turned loved ones into angry people, cloaked in righteousness, their families didn’t recognize. “It was insane — you understand how cults operate,” said Senko.
It’s still happening: Actor Mark Ruffalo recently tweeted that he’d lost an uncle to Fox News.
Anger’s ubiquity, its stickiness, indicates that we get something out of it. Frank Senko’s anger had become a habitual response to perceived threats and cues, a repeated behavior for a specific reward that led him to abandon the values he’d taught his own children and isolate himself to simmer in the vitriol coming over the airwaves. Senko had another way to describe her dad’s behavior: “He was addicted.”
PUT SIMPLY, SCIENCE agrees that we can get fixated on our own anger; the actual mechanism of this addiction is fascinatingly complex.
When we feel outrage, we’re responding to a potent cocktail of neurochemical reactions, physiological sensations, and conditioned responses. It’s a survival mechanism linked to our deepest, oldest brain system, the limbic system.
Any perceived threat — physical, metaphysical, ideological, or imagined — causes the amygdalae, the two almond-shaped bundles of neurons in the medial temporal lobe, to alert the brain to prepare for a fight (or flight). This signal causes the release of the neurotransmitter dopamine, as well as the stress hormones cortisol, adrenaline, and noradrenaline, which kick-start our sympathetic nervous system, causing oxygen levels in the blood and glucose levels in the brain to rise. Our heart rate, blood sugar levels, and blood pressure go up — energizing us for a fight.
This rush of neurochemicals has a transformative effect on our behavior. We might yell, clench our fists, or fume, signaling to everyone around us that we’re ready to blow up. At the same time, more subtle changes are happening. Notably, the mix disrupts our ability to think logically and makes a mess of our short-term memories. Noradrenaline and cortisol in particular suppress function in the prefrontal cortex, the area of the brain tasked with executive decision making. Cortisol also diminishes activity in the hippocampus, which is implicated in making short-term memories; this might be why it’s hard to remember what you were going to say during an argument, or later, what you said in a fit of rage. “The nature of anger is that it shuts off your cortex, your logic center, your thinking — it’s literally overriding that center of your brain,” said Dr. Jean Kim, a psychiatrist for the US Department of Health and Human Services.
Consider the Incredible Hulk, the green and grunting embodiment of unchecked fury. When mild mannered Bruce Banner becomes the Hulk, the normally careful and thoughtful scientist suddenly has the power to smash his way through injustice. The Hulk gets things done when Banner can’t; there’s an expediency to his anger.
But even if we don’t start swinging, expressions of anger force others to pay attention; this can be a shortcut to resolving conflict, but it can also reinforce the idea that rage equals power. A 2018 study from the University of Geneva found that humans notice and identify an aggressive voice much more quickly than a normal or happy voice.
All of this — the neurochemical rush, as well as others’ respect or fear of our rage — can be intoxicating. Humans are primed to perceive people who express anger as more competent and confident, and the more we use anger to dominate or control others (or to protect ourselves), the more this outrage shapes our identity: “People get a literal rush from getting angry,” Kim explained. “It feels good. It feeds into your sense of self and you end up liking it.”
Locking in the addictive effects of anger is dopamine, the neurochemical that hangs around after a flare-up, creating a post-tirade glow. Dopamine is a “feel good” hormone — it’s released when we have sex, eat good food, cuddle, exercise. Certain highly addictive drugs, such as methamphetamines, mimic dopamine in the brain. It tells us to keep doing that thing again and again, often leading to behavior patterns consistent with addiction.
It should be noted that some mental health professionals reserve the word “addiction” to describe substance abuse only, yet compulsive behaviors — too much sex and porn, hoarding, gambling, eating or not eating — share many substance abuse characteristics. If you can’t stop chasing the rewards despite devastating consequences — broken relationships, job loss, isolation, physical harm — then you’re mimicking addictive behavior.
That would certainly describe Frank Senko’s transformation from mellow dad to raging talk show junkie. “Anger is intoxicating,” his daughter observed when Frank went on daily anger benders. Those infusions of righteous anger — stoked by Rush Limbaugh and later, Fox News — gave him repeated hits of neurochemical stimulation, as well as a sense of purpose. In other words, the anger made him feel alive.
ANGER ACTS LIKE a virus, spreading quickly from talk show host to passive listener, in part because all human emotions are contagious. We experience emotional contagion every day — when our partner is in an irritable mood, we’re more likely to feel flashes of irritation; when we go to a ball game, we’re lifted by the good cheer of the crowd (or depressed because . . . insert Cleveland Browns joke here).
In the 1990s, a series of studies demonstrated the power of emotional contagion. When subjects saw pictures of happy human faces, they reported feeling happy; when they saw sad faces, they were sad. Further research revealed that the stronger the emotion, the more easily it is transferred between people. One 2009 study found that when people who weren’t lonely spent time with lonely people, they became lonelier.
Emotional contagion has been observed in other primates, birds, even in dogs: One study from the Clever Dog Lab at the University of Vienna found that dogs became uneasy when they heard recordings of other dogs or, fascinatingly, humans in distress.
For humans, emotional contagion makes evolutionary sense: Our success as a species evolved out of our ability to function and cooperate in groups; rapid emotional communication would keep groups safe and cohesive. If there’s a danger — a herd of wildebeests heading straight for the camp, another tribe’s raiding party — it was crucial that panic and fear be communicated quickly. Equally, emotional mimicry helped people understand one another better and improve bonding. And though emotions are best communicated through face-to-face interaction, according to researchers, they easily traverse our modern networks of digital connections.
And guess what? Rage goes viral quicker than any other emotion. A study from Beihang University in China found that on Sina Weibo, China’s answer to Twitter, joy spread faster than sadness, but outrage outran them all. Researchers from the Wharton School at the University of Pennsylvania who analyzed the most emailed New York Times articles over a three-month period for their emotional tone found that the only feeling that outpaced anger was awe. “Anger is a high-arousal emotion, which drives people to take action,” Jonah Berger, the marketing professor who conducted the study, told Smithsonian. “It makes you feel fired up, which makes you more likely to pass things on.”
AN EMERGING BODY of work suggests that media outlets, finely tuned to capitalize on our emotions, are affecting how we feel about every aspect of our lives.
Outrage is certainly proliferating. It’s an attention-grabbing emotion that pushes engagement, which makes it easy to exploit by social media and news outlets. A 2018 Pew Research survey found social media users are most often amused online, but nearly as often, they experience anger; the same survey found that 59 percent of users frequently saw other people online looking for opportunities to start arguments.
Indeed, fury is thriving in the current media landscape, argues Tufts University sociologist Sarah Sobieraj, co-author of the 2014 book, “The Outrage Industry.” In the scramble for listeners and clicks, vitriol sells, and sells, and sells. “Things that give you a strong emotional reaction are pretty effective [at attracting attention],” she says. “So yes: Anger, fear, moral indignation, these types of things are the news equivalents of what we see in the entertainment industry — sex and violence.”
And there’s a clear trajectory, notes Sobieraj, from the 1987 repeal of the Federal Communication Commission’s Fairness Doctrine — the mandate requiring TV and radio broadcasters to present a spectrum of relevant viewpoints on controversial issues — to the increase in anger-fueled rhetoric. Deregulating the media allowed disturbingly polarized content to dominate the airwaves, and then the Internet. Indeed, all kinds of emotionally charged content has proliferated.
While all partisan news outlets follow the emotionally exploitative playbook, Sobieraj says, right-wing outlets have so far deployed it with more success — talk radio is around 90 percent conservative. Rage disrupts logical thought, reducing complex issues to black and white answers: build the wall, lock her up, make it great. However, the polemical nature of right-wing rhetoric may be pushing people on the left to react accordingly. When anger addicts find a medium that resonates with them, they may not recognize how emotionally affected they are by the fiery rhetoric. “It doesn’t sound like outrage when you agree with it,” says Sobieraj. “It sounds like someone truth-telling and so it feels great — that’s why this content is successful.”
Inundated by extreme viewpoints designed to stoke emotions, Americans may be feeling more threatened, and therefore, more irate. A 2016 Esquire/NBC survey found that half of all Americans were angrier than they had been the year before; 31 percent of respondents were enraged by something in the news a few times a day, while 37 percent were angry once a day. Meanwhile, acts of road rage involving firearms have more than doubled since 2014, according to The Trace.
Perhaps related, perhaps not, there has also been a sharp rise in hate crimes in the US — up 17 percent in 2017 from the previous year. Even pop music appears to be trending negative: A study of the Billboard Top 100 pop songs between 1951 and 2016 found that anger in lyrics increased by 232 percent, while joy decreased by 38 percent.
OUR EMOTIONS HELP us engage with the world; they make us care about what we’re reading, hearing, and looking at. And good news does sell, which is why stories about adopting kittens or helping homeless people go viral. The problem is that we, as humans, are primed to respond with more focus and attention to negative arousal emotions like rage. It’s easy to fall into a big, angry feedback loop of outrage and reward.
Substance abusers often need to increase their dosage to feel the same high; the anger machine works the same way. “If you’re used to seeing a lot of highly emotional language that triggers emotions like anger, you’re probably going to need increasingly sensational language to get your attention because your standard, your baseline changes,” said Dr. Julia Shaw, a London-based psychologist whose new book, “Making Evil,” examines why people do bad things. Shaw didn’t agree that anger could technically be an addiction, but she did agree that the feeling can inspire compulsion. “In that sense, [engagement with angry media] mimics what we might consider addictive behavior in that we need more of the same hit to get the same high.”
Senko, however, would argue that her father was addicted to the anger. Hearing people rant for hours every day, Frank began mirroring that behavior; then he needed it more. “We’re not as unmalleable as we like to think we are. Media has a powerful effect on we humans,” she said. “You are what you watch, eat, and read.”
But there is hope. You can quit anger. Senko’s dad did, before his death at the age of 93 in 2016 — with a little help. After his radio broke, he stopped listening to the talk shows; he and Senko’s mother started eating lunch together again. He stopped watching Fox News when they got a new TV and his wife programmed the remote with all her channels. And while he spent a week in the hospital recovering from kidney stones, his family quietly unsubscribed him from the right-wing emails he’d been getting.
“He became happy. And adorable. And we became friends again. And he and my mother got along really great,” said Senko. “The last couple years of his life, he was himself again, and we had him back.”
Linda Rodriguez McRobbie, a frequent Ideas contributor, is an American freelance writer living in London.