People who can control their impulses are better at controlling their anger. And researchers say it comes down to keeping emotions in check.
According to Brandon Schmeichel, a professor of psychology at Texas A&M University who specializes in “inhibitory ability,” a person’s capacity to override a response:
“We chalk it up to emotion regulation. People who are good at self-control are regulating their emotions in resisting an impulse. They spontaneously apply that capacity to down-rate negative emotions.”
In a recent study, Schmeichel and coauthor David Tang, a graduate student in psychology, tested subjects’ inhibitory abilities with the “stop-signal task,” a commonly used laboratory measure in which subjects are asked to respond as quickly as possible to a square or circle on a computer screen by pressing a button.
On a minority of trials, a beep sounds shortly after the shape appears, cuing the subjects not to press the button. People who are better able to inhibit the button-pressing response are thought to have better inhibitory control.
“The stop-signal task is a well-validated measure of inhibitory control, but few studies have investigated the relationship between stop-signal performance and emotional responding,” the researchers write.
Following the stop-signal task, some subjects were put into an emotional state by having to recall a time when they were anxious or angry, while others were asked to recall a neutral time.
The results showed that people with better inhibitory control reported emotional memories, but their current emotional state was less affected than those with less inhibitory control. In other words, poorer inhibitory control contributed to bigger increases in negative emotions after retrieving bad memories.
“Regardless of whether they recalled an angry memory or an anxious memory, participants with poorer inhibitory control reported an increase in anxiety,” Schmeichel says. “For these participants, retrieving negative emotional memories was an anxiety-provoking experience.”
Anger vs. Anxiety
Also, anger worked somewhat differently than anxiety.
“Participants did not report experiencing much anger when they recalled an anxious memory,” Schmeichel says. “But when they recalled an angry memory, participants with poorer inhibitory control reported more anger than those with better inhibitory control.”
The study may hold clues to how some people can manage anger and anxiety.
“If you are the kind of person with poor inhibitory control, it may be best to avoid situations that may elicit anger or anxiety, because it may be more challenging for you to inhibit your emotions after they’ve started.”
He suggests relying on friends and family to keep you mindful of situations before they happen. “If you have poor control, it’s good to have a buddy that doesn’t,” he notes.
To sharpen self-control skills, take a “big-picture” approach, he suggests:
“It takes practice, but in a moment of temptation, focus on the big picture—you want to smoke that cigarette, but step back and remember your family and how much you mean to each other.”