A friend’s husband was upset about an altercation he had had with a colleague. He had lost his temper on what he realised was an “insignificant matter” and the other person had reacted badly to it as well. Within minutes the spat had spiralled out of proportion to affect a long-standing and important work relationship.
Though he regretted the incident, he had begun to reflect on various dimensions of this association with his colleague—what he liked about him, what he had disliked; situations in the past, both pleasant and unpleasant, that had transpired between them. Evidently his mind was beginning to turn a big wheel of thought, digging into the far past. At the same time, he was contemplating implications way into the future, were there to be a split. It was consuming his time and energy, to make him feel worse.
“What was your day like when this happened?” I asked, conversationally. “Not too bad,” he said, trying to recall it. “Were you tired or overworked?” I asked, wondering if the trigger was something simpler. “Not particularly,” he said, “Though I was hungry as hell,” he added, after some thought. “I remember putting off lunch to a later time, and then when this happened, not eating very much.”
Down to basics
Leonard Berkowitz, a US social psychologist who died earlier this year, is eminent for his work on the causes of human aggression. His research and teaching, for most part at the University of Madison-Wisconsin, led him to postulate that other than more complex issues that lead us to be aggressive, there are simpler ones—fatigue and hunger.
Though these are fundamentals of human behaviour identified and known to every culture and even parent quite naturally, Berkowitz emphasised them. We are driven to anger and aggression if we are tired or we are hungry, he had maintained, over more complex issues and workings of the mind. “Also when we are physically uncomfortable,” he had said, at an interview in 2009, “if we are too hot or too cold. These are things we often tend to overlook.”
Berkowitz’s analysis was bang on in this particular case. Not only had the trigger been as basic as hunger, but that because it was so fundamental and simple, it had clearly been disregarded as a probable cause for the altercation. The two people who had been involved and affected were unnecessarily delving into a more complex thought process, which often arises as a defence mechanism, both for the aggressor and the aggrieved.
The significant other
Another aspect that Berkowitz’s approach points towards is to do with the other. If the cause for anger, aggression and even violence is often hunger and fatigue, it helps us to bear that in mind, more so when we are confronted or targeted by an angry outburst from another, especially if it is a stranger.
From that rude parking attendant who may be sick from the heat or cold, to a boss who might have found time for lunch closer to dinnertime, it helps us to know these are basic triggers to what may seem like irrational anger, unfairly directed our way. Knowing this, we are led to respond compassionately rather than to react unmindfully.
My friend’s husband was relieved to understand the trigger to his outburst. It not only settled things within him, but also now allowed him to confront his colleague’s indignation with an apology and an explanation. “I am sorry,” he said to him the next day, “I was hungry.”
“So was I,” said his colleague.