Why are people so rude, angry, and at times violent these days?

Are you concerned with what appears to be an across-the-board increase in rude and angry behaviours in society? Parents yelling at their kids’ hockey or soccer coaches; road rage; kids shooting classmates and teachers; lying and deliberate “fake news”; bullying and shaming on social media; violence in nursing homes… None of this is new, but there is more of it than ever.

As a psychiatrist and a computer systems engineer, I have a particular interest in how the brain functions, and what can make it go off the rails. So I have some theories about why there may be more angry and violent behaviours in our communities.

But before the theories, there is some ground that we need to cover. Angry, rude, or violent behaviour is driven by anger—an emotion—which in turn is an automatic, instantaneous, and (at least initially) unconscious response to a perceived provocation, hurt, or threat. As an emotion, anger is outside of our control. There is little or nothing we can do to prevent becoming angry or to modify its course. But—and this is a big but—behaviour which is stimulated by anger is under our control, and becomes increasingly more so as we mature. With age and experience (and motivation!) we become more able to control what we do or what we say when we become angry.

So there are a number of factors at play here. Something which increases the likelihood of our perceiving provocation, hurt, or threat, will raise the frequency and amount of angry emotions. Paranoia, whether due to mental illness, drug use (think speed or cocaine), news reports, or induced by our political leaders, increases our perception of threat. Irritability, common enough but particularly increased in people in a manic episode, also increases anger. And finally, our ability to control our behaviour may be decreased by, again, mental illness, drugs such as alcohol, phencyclidine (aka angel dust), or prescribed medication.

Of course, there is also the possibility that some individuals view angry or violent behaviour as just a way to get what they want. And perhaps some who just enjoy it!

But none of this is new and thus cannot explain any increase in rude, angry, or violent behaviour. So let’s look at the things that have changed in the past couple of decades. I will be discussing the increase in antidepressant usage, changes in sleep patterns, side effects of antihypertensive medication, exposure to blue light at night and to bisphenol A, diet, and the dark triad personality.

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