The Power of Anger to Change the World

Published in
5 min readApr 19, 2023

“As heat conserved is transmitted into energy, even so, anger controlled can be transmitted into a power that can move the world” — Mahatma Gandhi

From mass pro-abortion protests in Poland to the gillets jaunes movement in France, across Europe anger has been on the rise. Gallup’s annual emotions monitor shows a steady increase in anger since 2011. Yet most organisations and changemakers avoid engaging with this incredibly powerful emotion.

Credit: Unsplash — koshuphotography

Could anger’s strong social energy be a tool for social change? To explore this question Mindworks, a cognitive research and social change agency, just released its first Anger Monitor, studying the quantity and quality of anger in three European countries alongside recommendations on how to better navigate anger in our societies. In January, Mindworks conducted and analysed a representative survey in Poland, France and the UK looking at how angry each society is about the cost of living crisis, the target of their anger and the country’s cultural relationship with anger. The results were compiled into an Anger Index and a more detailed analysis of the state of anger in each country. Mindworks also developed recommendations on how anger could be better channelled to create political and social change.

Anger and Powerlessness: a toxic mix

The results showed that in all three countries, more than half of the respondents felt angry about the cost of living crisis. On the other hand, a similar percentage also felt powerless in the face of the crisis, rising to a staggering 69% in France. This combination of feelings is dangerous. People that feel angry and powerless slide into frustration. They begin to distrust and disengage from society and the political system. Indeed, in each country, our study also found that almost half of the respondents felt their suffering was being ignored (UK 40%, PL 47% and France 48%). While people that feel powerless tend to initially suppress their anger, when it is released, this group may become more reckless, even resorting to violence. The survey found, for example, in Poland 40% of people felt more aggressive forms of protest were needed. This toxic combination may also manifest itself in support of radical or anti-establishment parties.

Credit: Mindworks Lab

Anger culture

Yet powerlessness is not the only force that can make anger toxic. A culture where anger tends to be suppressed also leads to dangerous frustration — like a boiling pot with the lid on, it is only a matter of time before it explodes. The study found that UK citizens who were angry about the crisis and had a negative attitude towards their own and other people’s anger were more likely to be frustrated than those with a positive attitude towards anger. The latter group preferred to take positive action, such as participating in a protest or helping their community. In France, while those with a negative attitude also tended to be more frustrated, the group with positive attitudes towards anger did not show higher levels of positive or constructive anger, most likely explained by the high level of powerlessness.

Institutional and societal trust

Another area the survey explored was who people blamed for the cost of living crisis. In France and the UK, the government was seen to be most to blame (FR 65% and UK 61%). While Poland showed a similar level of blame towards the government (62%), the top target for blame was, unsurprisingly, the Russian government with 68%. This means that the Polish government still has the opportunity to rally angry citizens behind them if they take action directed at the Russian government.

In all three countries, we see a politically motivated social divide with around 40% blaming those that elected the government for the crisis. In France and the UK, we can also see an economically motivated social divide, with 35% and 28% accusing people who are better off for the crises. In Poland, this stands at only 18%, giving Poland a slightly lower social anger level on the Anger Index.

Credit: Mindworks Lab

Anger quality AND quantity

The Mindworks study showed that while the quantity of anger around the cost of living crisis was relatively similar in all three countries, the quality of this anger differed dramatically. Based on our criteria we found that the UK had by far the most harmful level of anger. Nevertheless, all three countries showed a level of what we would consider to be “unhealthy” anger (an index between 0.1–1.0 can be considered healthy). This means that in all three countries, governments and civil society are failing to modulate anger effectively for it to become a constructive energy of change.

In social science, anger is seen as ‘the political emotion’ as political leaders or parties who can control it have a critical advantage over their competitors. However, far too often, anger is seen as an emotion that can be engaged with opportunistically or ignored completely, leaving it to demagogues and populists to exploit, undermining democratic values.

We need an anger revolution

Anger is one of the six essential human emotions and was meant to guarantee our survival and prepare us to fight. Though anger itself is just an emotion, in societies it is powerful a force that has resulted in and continues to catalyse positive societal change. Revolutions, labour, and human rights struggles and movements have all utilised anger’s power to change the world and there are strategies and tactics we can employ in campaigns on everything from the climate crisis to immigration or polarisation.

Once we know what turns people’s anger toxic, we can design the right interventions to modulate or direct it in a positive way. We can empower people by allowing them to feel self-efficacy and creating moments for agency — more participation and citizen lead processes on all political levels. Whatever we can do to reduce societal polarisation and rebuild institutional trust will help us build resilience and turn frustration into constructive anger. It also requires that civil society actors empower their audiences. This is particularly true for crisis management. It needs cultures that do not suppress but embrace and normalise the expression of anger. Creating more positive anger cultures could also help solve some of the harm that social media inflicts on democratic societies.

While inflation and energy prices might drop and fade from the public discourse, in the era of omnicrisis, anger is here to stay. It is time that institutions and civil society learnt how to transform this emotion into a constructive energy of change instead of a ticking time bomb of frustration.

Mindworks will repeat the Anger Monitor survey quarterly and increase the number of countries it surveys. Together with interested partners, we want to use the data and insights to help progressive changemakers understand how to modulate and direct anger to create the change the world desperately needs.




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