Expression of Anger - “The Frustration Response”

It seems that the expression of anger can all too readily be witnessed, from ‘road rage’ to ‘supermarket rage,’ from the ready expression of violent, antisocial behaviour to the escalation of physical fighting as a response and other acute abusive behaviours which often accompany seemingly trivial conflicts.

The expression of anger increasingly seems to be synonymous with what I would term “The Frustration Response.”

By Peter Gerstmann, Principal, PGA Group Consulting Psychologists

So, how prevalent is the expression of anger as a response to frustration? Moreover, is it possible to predict the likelihood and style of anger expression in individuals? Is the style of anger expression likely to be overt and open, or covert and passive in orientation?

According to the American clinical psychologist Leo Ryan, it is possible to identify the areas of frustration within individuals which may contribute ultimately to the expression of anger.

Further, Dr Ryan has identified the relationship between the levels of certain interpersonal needs within individuals and the likelihood of their expressed anger being overt or covert in style and delivery. It is possible, according to Ryan to ‘score’ and predict this anger delivery style propensity.

Utilising Dr Ryan’s taxonomy of anger expression style and need frustration, we can predict the areas of sensitivity which may ‘touch a nerve,’ so to speak in different individuals and to identify whether their expression of anger is likely to be overt and open, or covert and passive in style and delivery.

This topic is relevant in all areas of human interaction, not least in settings such as the work or home environment, or in situations such as the experience of stress and the breakdown of effective interpersonal functioning.

Organizations and responsible others with a duty of care to perform may be particularly interested in this topic.

Individuals’ frustration response and expression of anger are topics addressed within psychometric assessment reports provided as part of PGA Group Consulting Psychologists’ Psychometric Assessment Service.

Model of Anger

Model of Anger, for individuals - PGA Group Consulting Psychologists

Goal, or autonomy/control need fulfilment is blocked, frustrated or compromised*


Confusion or bewilderment arises


Perception/evaluation of an injustice or wrongdoing arises


Experience of anger sets in: a reaction occurs - ranging from irritation or annoyance to rage, further psychological reactions and physiological reactions occur


Anger is contained or released (expression of anger), overtly or covertly*


The trigger situation resolves or does not, and the expression of anger diminishes, continues or escalates

* Individuals’ psychological interpersonal need orientation can serve as a useful predictor of the situations or circumstances which are likely to be involved in the triggering of anger within them and of their likely style of anger expression, viz. overt or covert. Individuals’ value systems and other personality characteristics are also likely to play a part in their propensity to display anger and in their expression of anger style.

Definition of Anger

Anger here is defined as an emotional reaction to circumstances perceived by an individual as unjust. This response consists of psychological discomfort accompanied by physiological reactions, including increased blood pressure, vasoconstriction (constriction of the blood vessels), and other visceral reactions, including a tightening of the abdomen for example.

Anger results from the belief or realization that an injustice has been imposed on an individual by someone or a situation. Often, some form of goal attainment has been perceived by the person experiencing anger as having been unfairly or wrongly blocked.

The perception of injustice is determined in part by the person’s system of logic, which may be rational, irrational, primitive or bizarre. What somebody else considers being an injustice is not important or relevant; instead it is the viewpoint of the person affected and that person’s evaluation that an injustice has occurred that matters.

According to Ryan, the following sequence must occur for a person to experience anger:

  1. The individual learns to expect goal attainment as a result of specific behaviours.

  2. Achievement of a goal is frustrated by a barrier that comes between the person and the goal and thus prevents the goal from being attained.

  3. The person affected then experiences confusion or bewilderment. Anger does not set in until the person decides (consciously or otherwise) that an injustice has occurred.

The speed at which the sequence plays through and the length of the interval between elements of the sequence may vary from situation to situation or occasion to occasion, within and between individuals. Further, the anger experienced may intensify, either as the individual continues to experience the frustration, or if they experience further frustration or exasperation, for example while attempting to resolve the situation or overcome the initial frustration.

The resultant psychological discomfort experienced within the affected individual may be contained, or it may be expressed by them overtly or covertly, i.e. done or shown openly, or not openly. Typically, this experience of anger includes:

  • A reaction,* ranging from annoyance to rage with the barrier that prevents the goal from being attained (the ‘frustrator’).

  • Feelings of deprivation resulting from drive reduction and the lack of goal attainment (feeling frustrated).

  • Physiological reactions that produce bodily tension, including flushing in the face and changes to blood pressure, heart rate, circulation, respiration, endocrine activity (hormone secretion into the blood), and pupillary response.

* The intensity of anger experienced (reaction) varies from annoyance to rage, depending on the extent or gravity of the injustice as perceived or evaluated by the individual affected.

Goal or Need Frustration and Anger

The degree of anger experienced and the style of the expression of anger is determined largely by the extent to which the individual’s needs for autonomy and control are affected or frustrated.

The blocking of need fulfilment, or pressure to behave in a way which is opposed to, or incompatible with an individual’s control or autonomy needs can result in the experience of frustration and, ultimately of an anger response ranging from feelings of irritation or annoyance to the expression of rage as discussed under the heading Definition of Anger, above.

Control and autonomy needs may occur at varying intensities within individuals and fall into five major areas:

  • Recognition

  • Independence

  • Reassurance

  • Dependency

  • Narcissism


Individuals with a need for recognition want their achievements, merit, work, or service to be acknowledged and appreciated. They thrive on attention and applause from others.

A perceived injustice in connection with a perceived lack of recognition potentially can bring about an anger response within an individual who has a high need for recognition.


The need for independence in persons reflects their desire to be free of interference or control from others.

A perceived unwarranted or unwelcome interference regarding autonomy potentially can bring about an anger response within individuals who have a high need for independence.


Individuals with a need for reassurance are not dependent but do have doubts about their ability to make independent decisions. They are fearful of criticism or failure and need others to reassure them about the appropriateness of their behaviour.

A perceived lack of reassurance, pressure to make independent decisions and to accept the consequences of those decisions and perceived criticism potentially can bring about an anger response within individuals who have a high need for reassurance.


People with dependency needs are followers.

A lessened level of dependency in a follower indicates that they can work diligently if told what to do and how to do it by a person in authority.

Highly dependent persons are followers who avoid making decisions and taking on responsibility and want others to assume responsibility to relieve them of their obligations.

A perceived frustration of the expression of dependency, lack of guidance or control, or pressure to exercise autonomy and to take on responsibility for oneself potentially can bring about an anger response within individuals who have a high need for dependency.


Those with narcissistic needs (narcissism - an excessive or erotic interest in oneself and one’s physical appearance; inordinate fascination with oneself; an excessive self-love; vanity; self-centeredness; smugness; egocentrism) typically have a good self-concept and sense of adequacy.

These individuals tend to abdicate responsibility though in order to gratify their need for self-indulgence and their need for narcissistic self-gratification. Their performance may be inconsistent or erratic as a result.

A perceived frustration of the expression of narcissistic needs, or pressure to exercise responsibility consistently and the blocking of the expression of self-gratification behaviour potentially can bring about an anger response within individuals who have a high need for narcissism.

Overt and Covert Expression of Anger

The expression of anger can occur as a form of anger release by the person who cannot, or will not contain their feelings (any longer).

The experience of feelings associated with the experience of anger can build within the affected individual to the point where their anger will be released or expressed, or the expression of anger may be the initial response of some individuals.

This release of anger may be expressed overtly, i.e. openly and actively, or covertly, i.e. in a subtle, passive-aggressive manner.

To estimate whether a person’s expression of anger will be overt or covert, it is useful to consider the degree to which the individual desires to be included or accepted by others and the degree to which they desire to receive affection from others, along with certain other factors.

Those persons with a strong need to receive affection and a strong need for acceptance by others tend to be inhibited in openly expressing their anger, resorting instead to a more passive-aggressive style of anger expression. Individuals who exhibit a low level of assertiveness or dominance may also be likely to exhibit a more passive-aggressive style of anger expression.

Persons with a low need to receive affection and acceptance from others are likely to be less inhibited in openly expressing their anger. Further, the more antisocial the individual, or the less self-control they tend to have, combined with a high level of assertiveness or dominance, the greater the potential likelihood of their expression of anger being overt in style.

Individuals who are over controlled in orientation may reach the point at which they will ‘explode’ and no longer contain their anger. These individuals’ expression of anger may then take an overt or covert form, as above.

Both the intensity of inclusion and affection needs and the relationships between them are relevant in predicting a person’s anger expression style. The need for affection has a greater inhibiting effect upon the overt expression of anger than does the need for acceptance, according to Ryan.

Expression of Anger Score (EAS)

An analysis of the interaction between measured need for acceptance and measured need for affection within an individual yields their Expression of Anger Score (EAS).

Expression of Anger scores range from 1 to 100. The Expression of Anger score indicates the tendency within an individual to express anger overtly.

  • Expression of Anger scores of 1 to 48 signify a covert, passive-aggressive style of expressing anger; overt, direct expression of anger is rare among persons whose scores fall in this range, according to Ryan.

  • Expression of Anger scores of 49 to 76 indicate that an individual’s first reaction to anger will be covert and passive-aggressive; however, there is a moderate potential for overt, direct expression of anger if the situation that has aroused the anger persists.

  • Expression of Anger scores of 77 to 100 suggest a strong tendency to express anger overtly, directly and without inhibition.

It must be borne in mind that the Expression of Anger score is an indicator of the likely overtness or covertness of anger expression and not the preparedness to express anger. The point of preparedness to express anger will be determined in part by the individual’s frustration tolerance threshold.


The topic of the expression of anger is relevant wherever the potential for a breakdown in human relations exists.

Conflict, stress and frustrations in all areas of life can lead to anger as a response. The expression of anger can be overt and open, or covert and passive in style and delivery.

Ideally, individuals would not arrive at the point at which they can no longer contain, or are unwilling to contain their frustrations.

Understanding the factors which can contribute to the experience of anger and predicting the likely style of its expression can help in managing relationships and in formulating an anger management approach or a strategy to try and prevent the breakdown of relations in the first place.

Individuals’ frustration response and expression of anger information can be identified using appropriate tests and measures. Such information is contained within psychometric assessment reports provided as part of PGA Group Consulting Psychologists’ Psychometric Assessment Service. This information can be useful to organizations and responsible others with a duty of care to perform.

The expression of anger as a response to dissatisfaction can contribute usefully too in the study of employee attitudes and as a factor to consider within a stress audit or in the treatment of stress or breakdown in interpersonal relations. Again, PGA Group Consulting Psychologists can assist with advice or support in these areas.

I hope you have found this expression of anger article informative, useful and beneficial. It may be linked to or referenced freely. Please cite the author, Peter Gerstmann and the publisher, PGA Group Consulting Psychologists at

Should you have any questions, or would like further information without obligation, my team and I would be very happy to help. Details and an e-mail form to contact/locate us can be found here:

Peter Gerstmann
PGA Group Consulting Psychologists -


Ryan, Leo R, Clinical Interpretation of the FIRO-B, Palo Alto, CA: Consulting Psychologists Press.


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