When being caught in the wrong causes rage
July 18, 2023 5:25 PM   Subscribe

A while ago I posted an observation and a question in the blue wondering if there’s a psychological or other term for when a person becomes irrationally furious when they’re caught doing something wrong.

Today I encountered this again and it renewed my curiosity. I don’t think I’m a magnet for such behavior, exactly, but I do ride a bike on streets all the time and this does create some exposure. This afternoon I walked past a car with a dog inside, barking constantly, and all the windows all the way up. It was about 80 degrees F out, well above my threshold for immediate concern. I didn’t have any context for how long the dog had been there or when the owner would return. So I hunted for the number and called the local SPCA while standing on the sidewalk.

While on hold, the owner of the car returned and I - genuinely - expressed mild relief and asked if they would please leave their windows down next time at least. For the next 5 minutes the person walked me up against the wall of nearby shop, screaming at me, accusing me of being a “male Karen”, and the whole nine yards. I didn’t feel physically threatened as a 6’ tall fit middle aged guy… but it was just bananas. I never raised my voice, though I did ask the guy to take a breath, to think about how he was reacting, and generally to just please calm down when I could get a word in edgewise. I eventually got space to walk away without getting uncomfortably close. TLDR; this person did something (mildly?) wrong and flew off the handle when I called them on it pretty politely.

This is a pretty extreme example, but there are other simpler ones. Like getting flipped off after someone cuts you off while driving / riding a bike *as if you did something wrong*.

Is there a term for this asymmetric irrational anger that seems to occur when someone is called out for doing something wrong? I’d be delighted to have a name for it (e.g. Dunning-Kruger Effect) to help just label it and move on when I see it again, hopefully not soon!
posted by pkingdesign to Human Relations (29 answers total) 7 users marked this as a favorite
No idea. But good on you. Make sure those dogs don't die. If it had been a child, no one would dare fault you for that.
posted by Windopaene at 5:39 PM on July 18 [15 favorites]

People's behavior have gotten ruder since COVID* and we all forgot how to interact with humans.
C.f. "Frontline Work When Everyone Is Angry"

*And associated political events.
posted by cobaltnine at 5:57 PM on July 18 [9 favorites]

Shame often speaks in the voice of anger.
posted by mochapickle at 5:57 PM on July 18 [109 favorites]

I think he was terrified and angry that his dog almost got taken away. This specific case might not have been embarrassment so much as fear.
posted by amtho at 6:05 PM on July 18 [5 favorites]

In the case of the dog, I think it's more that many adults have a very low tolerance for strangers telling them what to do or passing moral judgement on them. I mean, some adults even give other adults in positions of authority a hard time (a recent mass phenomenon was the number of adults who threw fits when store employees politely asked them to wear a mask). I'm not saying you were wrong to speak up for the dog, it was good you did so, I just don't think the person's anger was so much about being "caught in the wrong" so much as "how dare this random guy tell me how to take of my dog!"

And in terms of cars when you're on your bike, lotta rage in the US directed at cyclists just trying to share the road. Again, I don't think it's so much as being caught in the wrong, more that some drivers think they own the road and cyclists don't belong there.
posted by coffeecat at 6:14 PM on July 18 [14 favorites]

Best answer: Redirected aggression? Putting the anger/fear/negative emotion out, often to the person closest (literally or metaphorically), rather than inward. A form of venting, if you will.

I think it's a very reflexive, unconscious attempt to protect themselves from hurt. Knowing you've done something dangerous and wrong is a big hurt! Perhaps they will unpack their reaction later and will come to a better understanding of what actually happened and their role in it. Or they won't, who's to say.

But if it helps, you can definitely imagine a cat having a clumsy moment and dealing with the embarrassment by whacking another cat in the face! Because I think that's basically what's going on.
posted by Baethan at 6:22 PM on July 18 [19 favorites]

Response by poster: Amtho and coffeecat both raise points among the litany the guy was screaming at me. Fear definitely came up specifically, and perhaps the “how dare you” is related to being called a “male Karen”. Good points! But I think my original question stands, even if the example is complex(?).
posted by pkingdesign at 6:30 PM on July 18

This may not quite encompass it, but "fight or flight" comes to mind. Being called on something you're doing wrong is a kind of confrontation, and some people really lean into those kinds of situations with anger and aggression.
posted by flod at 6:54 PM on July 18 [4 favorites]

Shame makes people behave in appalling ways. I think shame is such an unpleasant emotion that people will twist themselves into anger to avoid it. This is in the case of the dog. Re: cyclists: I think that is just self-righteous entitlement. Drivers feel entitled to the road, and cyclists are encroaching on their rights, and they must defend their territory.
posted by Ollie at 6:57 PM on July 18 [4 favorites]

Best answer: Sounds like DARVO (deny, attack, and reverse victim and offender) to me.
posted by (F)utility at 7:36 PM on July 18 [38 favorites]

I've heard anger described as a "cover emotion". It can be the cover for a lot of other negative emotions.
posted by Artifice_Eternity at 7:58 PM on July 18 [10 favorites]

Possibly related, especially if neurodivergent

Rejection Sensitive Dysphoria

Pathological Demand Avoidance (or Persistent Drive for Autonomy)
posted by Former Congressional Representative Lenny Lemming at 8:39 PM on July 18 [3 favorites]

Response by poster: DARVO seems like a very good definition of what’s going on, and a memorable acronym to boot. Thank you for all of these comments (so far)!
posted by pkingdesign at 8:50 PM on July 18 [2 favorites]

I think it's part of being human. Nobody likes to be in the wrong, and we tend to react with anger to things we don't like. I don't think you need a specific term.
I also don't think this person was in the wrong. Leaving a dog in a car for a few minutes is not a morally wrong act, and you assumption that because you were concerned you were in the right, and therefore because you were concerned he was wrong, is not entirely logical. People react badly when they're in the wrong, but also when someone well-meaning puts them in a situation where the SPCA may come and break their car windows for absolutely no reason.
It's quite likely that this has happened to this person before, because this has been a meme on the web for some years: if you see a dog in a car you should assume it's near death, and you can interfere with impunity.
Unfortunately the web is not real life, and most people are careful with their pets.
When someone did this to me I was also angry.
posted by AugustusCrunch at 9:12 PM on July 18 [5 favorites]

I agree that both shame-rage (you're right, we need a better word) and DARVO are things that happen in the world, but I'm not so sure they really describe what happened in your examples.

You're assuming the guy with the dog was angry because he was ashamed and deflecting his guilt. But as pointed out above, it's equally as likely that he was angry because he perceived a stranger coming along and trying to get the authorities to break his car windows for no good reason.

Car drivers flipping you off as they "cut you off" -- I don't know the details there, but it's my experience that often if a car is driving slowly enough that other drivers feel compelled to pass them in tight spaces, the faster driver is already very annoyed by the slower driver not being at the speed of traffic, by the time they pass.

That said, yeah, for sure, there is a special kind of angry that people get when they're embarrassed, and considering how common it is you'd think we'd have a good word for it! I found this article that talks about the phenomenon, maybe some of its terminology would be useful.
posted by fingersandtoes at 9:33 PM on July 18 [4 favorites]

Best answer: The specific psychological term for what you’re describing is deflection.
posted by Tell Me No Lies at 10:12 PM on July 18 [8 favorites]

Yeah it's definitely the case that some people leave their dogs or kids in hot cars for too long and sometimes we all know the outcome is really awful. But it's also the case that I feel like when I was a kid people used to trust other adults to make the right decisions about things like this, and now everyone's trying to be the hero who makes the citizen's arrest of the evil villain who left their dog in a warmish car for a minute to grab something from a store that doesn't allow dogs inside.

Like...I don't know, man. I totally understand your concern and I'm not saying you're the bad guy. But I'd be annoyed too in this guy's place and I might be a jerk about it in the moment. You basically just called him a shitty dog owner who doesn't care for his pet like he ought to, and you're expecting him to, what? Thank you politely for your input? Tell you he was somehow unaware it gets hot in cars on hot days? What sort of reaction were you expecting here? Of course he got defensive, you didn't know how long he'd been gone or anything else about why he made the choice he made, but you definitely thought it was your place to lecture a stranger about a decision he probably thought about and decided was the best option under the circumstances.

I guess I'm a little mad on his behalf! And it's certainly not shame on my part, I'm not even this guy. It's just really annoying when strangers question your basic competence to make decisions about your dependents' safety. And also a little scary, because I think we've all heard stories of people who got their beloved pets taken away from them based on this sort of story.
posted by potrzebie at 10:55 PM on July 18 [18 favorites]

Related to displacement activity? This surfaced when I took Psych 101 in college in the last century: when animals/ppl are emotionally charged by irreconcilable desires [shit or go blind] the energy spills over into a third behaviour . . . which has a lower threshold.
posted by BobTheScientist at 1:04 AM on July 19 [2 favorites]

It's an example of projective identification. Simply put, they defend against feeling bad by trying to induce the same feeling in you - like expelling what they're ashamed of.
posted by Ballad of Peckham Rye at 2:59 AM on July 19 [4 favorites]

Best answer: I know this isn't exactly what you're asking for, but here's a mental framework I use, up a level from directly describing this specific behavior. Cynically, I believe that most people in the world are some level of emotionally immature. Parenting is not typically part of the formal education people receive, and it is extremely easy to contagiously pass on to your children the same or complementary emotional immaturity you were raised with.

Emotional immaturity in people is born out of the difficulty of feeling and dealing with emotions, the literal overwhelm of the brain and spontaneous bodily changes that are experienced by the person. As a result, the emotionally immature person's reaction to stimuli will be whatever is easiest for that person in dealing with the emotion they're feeling, in the moment. No higher goals will be considered, and emotional immaturity often makes the person's life harder overall, despite the unconsciously held goal of dealing with the emotion as easily as possible.

In your case, being asked to roll down the windows in the future leaves the person feeling judged by "the community" (as you aren't anyone specific to them, just a random), shame at putting the dog in harm's way, and general upset at possibly being a "bad person". These are complicated feelings and they do not feel good. There are a couple easy ways of dealing with these feelings: 1) fleeing, getting away from the situation as soon as possible. 2) fighting, deflecting their bad feelings onto something else. They react in such a basic way because they aren't able to accept their bad feelings, pause before an immediate reaction, and think of what their longer term goals are or how they impact other people — in this case an emotionally mature person would see that you were concerned for the same thing they are concerned for (the health and safety of the dog), and that they can easily pass through this encounter by thanking you for your concern and going on with their day. Note: I do not believe such a person really feels the feelings as I've described them in the first sentence. There is scientific evidence to suggest that a lack of effort spent in identifying and acquiring words to describe the emotions a person is feeling affects what and how they feel. Likely an emotionally unsophisticated person will just feel "bad".

I find that a lot of the weird choices I see people make can be explained as an emotional reaction due to some level of emotional immaturity surrounding the specific situation we were in. My career revolves around creatively solving problems, so I run into juniors who exhibit all sorts of suboptimal behavior because being wrong or failing is emotionally difficult for them. Part of teaching them is helping them to understand this and giving them skills for working through those emotions.

To close out, here are some relevant quotes from Adult Children of Emotionally Immature Parents (author has a PsyD, book has many references to scientific papers), all from Chapter 2 Recognizing the Emotionally Immature Parent.

For the rager's immediate reaction:
Emotionally immature people don’t deal with stress well. Their responses are reactive and stereotyped. Instead of assessing the situation and anticipating the future, they use coping mechanisms that deny, distort, or replace reality (Vaillant 2000). They have trouble admitting mistakes and instead discount the facts and blame others. Regulating emotions is difficult for them, and they often overreact. Once they get upset, it’s hard for them to calm down, and they expect other people to soothe them by doing what they want. They often seek comfort in intoxicants or medication.
Emotionally immature people are easily overwhelmed by deep emotion, and they display their uneasiness by transmuting it into quick reactivity. Instead of feeling things deeply, they react superficially. They may be emotionally excitable and show a strong sentimentality, perhaps being easily moved to tears. Or they may puff up in anger toward anything they dislike. Their reactivity may seem to indicate that they’re passionate and deeply emotional, but their emotional expression often has a glancing quality, almost like a stone skipping the surface rather than going into the depths. It’s a fleeting reaction of the moment—dramatic but not deep.
On doing what is easiest:
Young children are ruled by feelings, whereas adults consider possible consequences. As we mature, we learn that what feels good isn’t always the best thing to do. Among emotionally immature people, however, the childhood instinct to do what feels good never really changes (Bowen 1978). They make decisions on the basis of what feels best in the moment and often follow the path of least resistance.
For the rager's inability to consider toning down their reaction when you asked:
Emotionally immature people assess situations in a subjective way, not objectively. They don’t do much dispassionate analysis. When they interpret situations, how they are feeling is more important than what is actually happening. What is true doesn’t matter nearly as much as what feels true (Bowen 1978). Trying to get a subjectively oriented person to be objective about anything is an exercise in futility. Facts, logic, history—all fall on deaf ears where the emotionally immature are concerned.
posted by Axle at 6:29 AM on July 19 [21 favorites]

Oh and I forgot another prominent emotion the rager was likely feeling. Given his and your masculine genders, he was likely feeling some amount of insecurity because of your "masculine challenge" of his entitlement (he feels entitled to no challenge of any decision he has made). Likewise the genders involved likely influenced his emotional reaction leaning towards anger and fighting rather than fleeing.
posted by Axle at 6:38 AM on July 19 [4 favorites]

In the (psychology) world of attachment theory, there's the notion that people revert to a set of default (or "attachment distress") responses when their particular attachment injuries get poked. One of the common default responses is aggression, or using conflict in an attempt to regulate their emotions.
posted by late afternoon dreaming hotel at 6:56 AM on July 19

Is there a term for this asymmetric irrational anger that seems to occur when someone is called out for doing something wrong?

My wonderful ex-neighbour calls this "cracking the sads".

YouTube is replete with examples.
posted by flabdablet at 10:37 AM on July 19

Seconding rejection sensitive dysphoria, especially in cases of sudden and (apparently) irrational anger.

I don't like the term "emotional immaturity" because of the implicit judgement (i.e. "you're not mature enough to handle your emotions") when in many cases it's due to emotional dysregulation as a result of being neuroatypical or trauma or both, and has nothing at all to do with a person's "maturity".
posted by fight or flight at 12:47 PM on July 19 [5 favorites]

Maybe he felt ashamed. Maybe he felt nervous that he was going to lose his pet. Maybe he felt like you were wrong to hassle him.

Then there's this: "I did ask the guy to take a breath, to think about how he was reacting, and generally to just please calm down when I could get a word in edgewise." I'm sure you're picturing yourself as a calm and righteous hero while he's the out-of-control villian. But no one is a villian in their own story - he's not going to sign off on that version. He's also not going to magically calm down because you asked him too.

"Calm down" and "take a deep breath" are among the most condescending and rage-inducing things adults can say to one another. Have you ever seen them work?
posted by equipoise at 8:14 PM on July 19 [7 favorites]

Response by poster: Thanks for the comments everyone. Comments have shifted away from the question I originally asked so I'm going to mark this as answered.
posted by pkingdesign at 10:35 AM on July 20

Mod note: Several comments removed. Folks, please stay focused on the question, thanks!

OP, please keep in mind that Ask Metafilter isn't for back and forth discussion on a topic, but to get answers to a specific question. It's fine to pop in to clarify if people want or need more info, but otherwise just take in the answers, and determine for yourself what is useful for your purposes.
posted by Brandon Blatcher (staff) at 6:22 AM on July 21

I think some of it is just defensiveness. People get anxious or angry when they feel like they're being criticized, and maybe even moreso when they fear the criticism is actually correct. And some people just have much bigger expressions of emotion or more trouble controlling their emotional reactions than other people, so their defensiveness will come out as something like rage rather than just the annoyance or mild bother some of us might feel when criticized.
posted by decathecting at 3:00 PM on July 22

Coming in very late just to say thank you for looking out for that dog. I hope the owner's response does not stop you from making the same choice in the future.
posted by DingoMutt at 8:55 AM on August 6 [1 favorite]

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