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Commentary: Empathic anger spurs participation, study shows

At Appalachian State University, a look at volunteerism yielded a new result: anger is good.

Evolutionary psychology pinpoints empathic, cooperative group activity as a key to group survival. Everyone knows about the survival of the fittest when it comes to individuals but because groups of individuals need other groups to survive, empathy is in the mix.

But that's not the only factor that is at work in research from Robert Bringle, a professor at Appalachian State. He and his students are presenting their findings today at the British Psychological Society annual conference in Birmingham, UK.

Bringle was quoted on ScienceDaily online:

"Although there are many reasons why individuals help, empathy is prominent. Empathy occurs when an individual has a similar response to a suffering person and this is usually sadness. Empathic sadness motivates a person to help in order to alleviate the other person's suffering and to alleviate one's own discomfort."

To measure the response, his research created two questionnaires. Study 1 asked 132 participants to report their empathic anger, finding that those who had high scores for it were more apt to show public participation as change-agents. What's more, they tended to choose change-oriented volunteering rather than charitable work.

Study 2, on the basis of 152 participants, showed that those who scored high on empathic anger didn't display aggression. Instead, they didn't go along to get along with discriminatory policies, and they disapproved of unequal treatment of groups.

Bringle noted that his research and the new questionnaires were primarily interested in what makes empathy invoke anger. The research concluded that what he calls empathic anger is most likely when participants see unfairness as the basis for suffering. But Bringle also notes that the intensity of empathy is greater when it includes anger and leads to more than ordinary volunteering.

Linda Chalmer Zemel is the publisher and editor of the literary journal, "Person, Place, Thing." She also writes the Buffalo Books column, and she teaches at SUNY Buffalo State College.