Once, after finishing a book, I was overcome with the urge to throw it across the room — not because I was excited to be done with it, but because I loved it so damn much. It’s happened with other things, too. Every time I watch Jane the Virgin, for example, I think it’s so good that it makes want to yell at the TV. Sometimes, I just love something so much that it makes me mad.
And a quick look at Twitter or Instagram will reveal I’m not the only one who feels this way. In fact, you may know firsthand what I’m talking about: an intense positive feeling that pushes you to anger or aggression, sort of like being moved to tears by something beautiful. It could be paired with jealousy, but it’s not the same thing — this anger isn’t about coveting someone else’s success or talent. It’s more like bafflement that something so good could exist at all, or a furious exuberance that it does.
“It’s almost like tasting an amazing dessert and having a look of pain on your face. It’s like, ‘Ugh, that was good,’” said Oriana Aragón, an assistant professor of marketing at Clemson University. Aragón’s research focuses on dimorphous expressions, or expressions of emotion that seem at odds with what a person is actually feeling. Think of an athlete breaking down in tears after winning a championship game, or when a person sees a cute baby and declares that they want to eat its toes.
In a recent study, Aragón (who was a postdoctoral researcher at Yale University at the time of the research) and Yale psychology professor John Bargh looked at why these seemingly contradictory expressions occur. Study participants looked at images of tennis players expressing emotion after either winning or losing an important match, and were asked to imagine themselves in the same scenario: How would they feel? And, separately, how would they react? The subjects were also asked to report how they felt or reacted during their own personal experiences of happiness or sadness, and how they perceived other people expressing those emotions.
Based on the study results, Aragón and Bargh concluded that seemingly contradictory expressions could have more to do with the underlying motivational orientation than the actual emotion experienced. Think of how a dark or light base coat might change the way the top coat of paint looks; similarly, motivational orientations can influence how an emotion is expressed.
In their study, Aragón and Bargh look at two types of orientations. Appetitive orientations are based in wanting to get up and go: a kind of agitation or restlessness, or a kind of pursuit. “The best way to describe it is, when somebody who’s a smoker is craving a cigarette, it’s like that craving, that wanting,” Aragón said. “It’s not necessarily excitement. It’s not necessarily a positive or negative, it’s just that antsy feeling.” And if appetitive orientations are feelings of wanting to go, then consummatory orientations are the opposite: wanting to pause, to savor a moment or experience.
The researchers found that expressions typically associated with anger — like yelling or punching the air — were related to appetitive orientations, regardless of whether a person was experiencing a positive emotion or a negative one. Expressions normally associated with sadness, like crying or frowning, were based on feelings of wanting to stop and pause.
Dimorphous expressions happen when the emotion is strong, which is why people don’t generally cry over something they think is only okay. They can occur in positive and negative situations, but Aragón said they don’t represent both positive and negative emotions at once —when someone cries after a win, it doesn’t mean there’s some hidden sadness mixed in with their joy. And if that movie you’re watching is so good it makes you want to scream, it doesn’t mean that you’re actually feeling any anger. “It’s like an expression of pain or aggression upon a positive feeling, but if I asked you, ‘Are you really angry,’ you’d be like, ‘No, I think it’s amazing,’” Aragón said.
In fact, there are a few generally agreed-upon reasons in psychology that explain why people get angry, and none of them include something being really awesome. According to Michael Potegal, an associate professor of occupational therapy at the University of Minnesota and president of the International Society for Research on Aggression, general causes of anger are threats to the self, threats to physical safety or psychological integrity, and threats to one’s family and possessions. There’s also frustration, which is usually defined as a blockage of intended goals, and righteous anger, which comes from seeing a violation of social norms, like cutting in line.
Aggression, though, is something else entirely. “Anger is a motivation, and aggression is a form of behavior. And there’s some overlap between them, but there’s no necessary or sufficient connection between them,” Potegal said. Aggression — typically defined as activity intended to harm another person — can be triggered by anger (in what psychologists call reactive aggression), but people can also sometimes show aggression for other reasons, like for personal gain or as a show of dominance and control (proactive aggression).
So what’s going on when people yell and punch the air after winning a game? “It could be aggression, it could be exuberance, it could be a victory gesture,” Potegal said. “Is it related to aggression? Possibly. Is it related to anger? Probably not.”
But if you do become agitated or overwhelmed when you read a book or watch a show you love, there could be something more to it than just an extreme expression of pure positivity.
Tiffany Watt Smith, a researcher at the Centre for the History of the Emotions at Queen Mary University of London, has written about difficult-to-define emotions from many cultures in her book The Book of Human Emotions.
“When we’re talking about what an emotion is, it’s easy for us to fall into the trap of thinking that emotions are just physiological responses to external stimuli, and that we all pretty much have exactly the same sort of responses and these are primarily happening in our body,” Watt Smith said. “But actually, they’re not. Emotions are much more flexible and malleable things, and they are happening in conversation with the way we think about what they are, and how we name them, and how we make sense of them.”
According to Watt Smith, there’s plenty of precedent for the idea that finding something new that you love a great deal could throw you off kilter. She mentioned Stendhal Syndrome, or the tendency to faint at the sight of immense beauty: “People don’t really tend to get it anymore, but it was a sort of phenomenon in the 19th century,” she said. Being awestruck is another one of the intense emotions that can bring out dimorphous expressions — for example, crying at a sunset or whooping at the beauty of a snowy mountaintop.
Watt Smith said the way people talk about emotions changes over time, and the value people place on certain emotions can change depending on their culture. These days, Stendhal Syndrome is out of vogue, but I have a nominee in mind for its modern incarnation.