Researchers have found a simple and effective strategy to reduce angry and aggressive thoughts.
When someone makes you angry, try to pretend you're viewing the scene at a distance - in other words, you are an observer rather than a participant in this stressful situation. Then, from that distanced perspective, try to understand your feelings.
The researchers call this strategy "self-distancing."
In one study, college students who believed a lab partner was berating them for not following directions responded less aggressively and showed less anger when they were told to take analyze their feelings from a self-distanced perspective.
"The secret is to not get immersed in your own anger and, instead, have a more detached view," said Dominik Mischkowski, lead author of the research and a graduate student in psychology at Ohio State University.
"You have to see yourself in this stressful situation as a fly on the wall would see it," he explained.
While other studies have examined the value of self-distancing for calming angry feelings, this is the first to show that it can work in the heat of the moment, when people are most likely to act aggressively, Mischkowski said.
The worst thing to do in an anger-inducing situation is what people normally do: try to focus on their hurt and angry feelings to understand them, said Brad Bushman, a co-author of the study and professor of communication and psychology at Ohio State.
"If you focus too much on how you're feeling, it usually backfires. It keeps the aggressive thoughts and feelings active in your mind, which makes it more likely that you'll act aggressively," Bushman said.
Mischkowski and Bushman conducted the study with Ethan Kross of the University of Michigan.
"The self-distancing approach helped people regulate their angry feelings and also reduced their aggressive thoughts," Mischkowski said.
In a second study, the researchers went further and showed that self-distancing can actually make people less aggressive when they've been provoked.
"The fact that those who used self-distancing showed lower levels of aggression shows that this technique can work in the heat of the moment, when the anger is still fresh," Mischkowski said.
Mischkowski said it is also significant that those who used the self-distancing approach showed less aggression than those in the control group, who were not told how to view the anger-inducing incident with their partner.
This suggests people may naturally use a self-immersing perspective when confronted with a provocation - a perspective that is not likely to reduce anger.
Another technique people are sometimes told to use when angered is to distract themselves - think of something calming to take their mind off their anger.
Mischkowski said this may be effective in the short-term, but the anger will return when the distraction is not there.
"But self-distancing really works, even right after a provocation - it is a powerful intervention tool that anyone can use when they're angry," he added.
Their findings appeared online in the Journal of Experimental Social Psychology and will be published in a future print edition.