Lean Back and Relax

Not being able to meet one’s goals can be very frustrating and frustration often triggers aggressive behavior (1). In everyday life, people encounter numerous potentially frustrating situations, be it a densely packed commuter train, a never-ending traffic jam, a long wait in a doctor’s surgery, or a reprimand by one’s boss about a poor performance at work. Since there is obviously no way to spare people from having to face such aversive situations, the question is rather what can be done to help them successfully cope with the anger and desire to respond aggressively resulting from such frustrations.

As outlined in a previous blog post, one strategy to reduce anger and aggression arising from aversive experiences is to elicit positive feelings that are inherently incompatible with anger. This can be achieved in a number of ways, for example by exposing people to pleasant music (2) or showing them funny cartoons (3). Similar to the aggression-reducing effects of positive feelings, helping people to relax can buffer the negative effects of frustrating events (4). Indeed, people intuitively often suggest to ‘just relax’ whenever somebody gets all worked up about something. But does that really do the trick? How can you relax when push comes to shove? One way to make people feel more relaxed in such situations may be to have them adopt a comfortable position. Since previous research has shown that a supine body position weakens aggression-related approach motivation (5), sitting in a reclined position could function as a bodily signal that an aversive situation is less severe than would otherwise be felt. In turn, this relaxation response should weaken any resulting tendencies to aggress.

credit: Alessandro Barbini, ( CC BY-NC 2.0 )  

credit: Alessandro Barbini, (CC BY-NC 2.0)

In a recent study, we tested the hypothesis that a frustration elicits less anger when received in a relaxing deckchair than when received sitting upright (6). When they arrived in the lab, participants were randomly assigned to either lean back in a deckchair or sit in an upright position at a desk. They were then asked to take the role of a counsellor and help a young couple to resolve a relationship problem. They were provided with a written description of the couple’s problem and were instructed to write down their proposed solution. Afterward, the experimenter informed them that another participant would now evaluate the quality of their professional advice and left the room for a few minutes to ostensibly hand the text to the other participant for evaluation. In reality, there was no other participant, and the evaluation was predetermined, regardless of the actual quality of the advice. On returning, the experimenter handed over a feedback form ostensibly filled out by the other participant. The evaluation was always decidedly negative and represented the frustration induction, which was employed to elicit anger. After measuring participants’ levels of anger and relaxation, they were asked to take a look at the alleged other participant’s written advice to the struggling couple and give it an evaluation on the same scales used for the feedback they had received. The degree of negativity of participants’ evaluation of the alleged other participant’s proposed solution was used as the measure of aggressive behavior.

The findings were in line with our predictions: As hypothesized, participants in the deckchair condition reported feeling more relaxed than those in the upright condition. Further, the more relaxed they felt, the less anger participants experienced after receiving the frustrating feedback, and the less angry they were, the less aggressive behavior they showed. Most importantly, we found a significant indirect effect from feeling more relaxed via feeling less angry to showing less aggressive behavior.

credit: Richard Walker, ( CC BY-NC 2.0 )  

credit: Richard Walker, (CC BY-NC 2.0)

These findings support the general idea that creating a state of relaxation may be an effective strategy for counteracting anger-driven aggressive behavior. Literally leaning back may actually help people to cope with frustrating events. The results also show how bodily cues can have an impact on how people react to aversive situations. But of course, taking a reclined seating position is just one way to trigger a relaxation response. If you do not have a comfortable deckchair at hand next time you face a potentially frustrating situation, you may want to resort to alternative strategies. For example, mindfulness-based interventions have been shown to increase people’s relaxation capacities (7) and could therefore also offer promising tools for applied aggression control. Further, combining the effects of multiple aggression-inhibiting strategies, like sitting in a comfortable position while listening to pleasant music, may prove especially effective to reduce anger and aggression following a frustration (4).

If you want to read more about this study, check out our publication in the European Journal of Social Psychology.

Johannes Lutz is a Lecturer at the Department of Psychology at the University of Potsdam in Germany.

(1) Berkowitz, L. (2012). A different view of anger: The cognitive-neoassociation conception of the relation of anger to aggression. Aggressive Behavior, 38, 322–333.

(2) Krahé, B., & Bieneck, S. (2012). The effect of music‐induced mood on aggressive affect, cognition, and behavior. Journal of Applied Social Psychology, 42, 271-290.

(3) Baron, R.A., & Ball, R.L. (1974). The aggression-inhibiting influence of nonhostile humor. Journal of Experimental Social Psychology, 10, 23-33.

(4) Tyson, P.D. (1998). Physiological arousal, reactive aggression, and the induction of an incompatible relaxation response. Aggression and Violent Behavior, 3, 143-158. 

(5) Carver, C.S. (2004). Negative affects deriving from the behavioral approach system. Emotion, 4, 3-22.

(6) Krahé, B., Lutz, J., & Sylla, I. (in press). Lean back and relax: Reclined seating position buffers the effect of frustration on anger and aggression. European Journal of Social Psychology

(7) Shonin, E., Van Gordon, W., Slade, K., & Griffiths, M.D. (2013). Mindfulness and other Buddhist-derived interventions in correctional settings: A systematic review. Aggression and Violent Behavior, 18, 365-372.