The Flywheel of Anger

Why do some people always seem angry about a few specific topics? Because they're constantly rewarded for dwelling on how awful those things are.

Be angry, and don’t sin. Don’t let the sun go down on your wrath.
— Ephesians 4:26

If you want to be appreciated, share a mean story

Anger is popular and it spreads easily. As studied by academics and condensed by CGP Grey, people love to spread stories about how angry the other team makes them even more than they spread useful information or funny stories.

Laugh and the world laughs with you, share an angry image macro and half your acquaintances roar with approval.

Sharing outrage-inducing stories provides the sharer positive feedback in the form of positive interactions from people who agree, giving them a satisfying us-versus-the-bad-guys feeling.

It's not the high that kills you

CGP Grey's metaphor of stories as viruses mutating into a maximally-shareable version of themselves explains most of the links you see shared in your feed every day, but doesn't dwell as much on what happens inside the brains of the people reading the angry stories.

The outrage you can feel when you read a story doesn't exist in a vacuum – it is emotional energy manifested in anger at Something. When you read multiple stories in a row about how bad Something is, it's not just a few hits in a row of a well-targeted high, it is building up a momentum of anger that sticks around longer than any of the details of the story or joke.

That anger momentum primes you to read future stories about the evils of Something. Once you're properly aghast at the evils of Something, it takes less and less of a shocking story for you to get that same level outrage about Something.

Flywheels as a metaphor

Flywheels are sweet machines that store energy. Get them going and it doesn't take much energy to keep them spinning – take your foot off the pedal and they spin for longer than you'd expect.

(My grandparents had an old spinning wheel in their house and I loved to pump away at it.)

Who is everyone angry at?

Folks who achieve even a small amount of fame discover they've attracted persistent haters.

It is downright common for non-crazy people to hate a full-on "public figure":

  • Obama
  • Trump
  • Elon Musk
  • Bill Gates
  • Mark Zuckerberg

Vaguely-defined groups are easy to hate:

  • The ultra-wealthy
  • The medical establishment
  • Capitalists
  • Academia

Abstract conspiracy-theory-level concepts that don't exist in any meaningful sense:

  • The Patriarchy
  • Cultural Marxists

And of course, the Red and Blue tribes, the ultimate outgroups, which often focus their energy on a particular set of flywheels selected from the lists above.

But I'm not angry

If you go looking for it, meditate a lot, and get really introspective about it... it's still way easier to notice the flywheels of anger in other people than yourself.

I don't even think most people with actively spinning anger flywheels would describe their emotion as "anger" or "hate". If you find yourself reading lots of articles about Cultural Marxists, you don't think of it as feeling anger towards an outgroup, it feels like educating yourself on cultural changes. When your friends talk about the oppression of The Patriarchy, you think of it as describing a system that causes visible harm.

By default, people only notice it when they see what other people are saying about their group, and recognize it as almost entirely fabricated.

It's almost entirely lies made up through a series of many blog posts, opinion pieces, questionable news stories, and funny memes.

The dangers

Exposing yourself to angry discourse has downsides.

Exposure to disinformation is the obvious one. I won't say too much on this now except to note that most of the popular sources of news or discourse online write their stories to cater to one set of flywheels or another.

Even if you don't maintain a set of frantically-spinning anger flywheels, it's easy to only consume content full of half-truths and missing context intended to be read credulously by readers who appreciate a quick hit of outrage to feed their flywheel.

More importantly, God doesn't expect us to be motivated by anger. We are supposed to leave the wrath to him.

Don’t seek revenge yourselves, beloved, but give place to God’s wrath. For it is written, “Vengeance belongs to me; I will repay, says the Lord.”
— Romans 12:19

Even if sharing articles and memes about how outrage-worthy Something is was effective as vengeance, it would be ungodly.

cast all your worries on him, because he cares for you.
— 1 Peter 5:7