Marien Lievaart - Psychology
Why do some people react with a disproportional amount of anger in response to seemingly minor provocations, whereas others are able to keep their cool? The cognitive approach assumes that a number of cognitive processes play a role in “high trait anger” and “reactive aggression”. Recently, Wilkowski and Robinson (2008; 2010) integrated these finding in an integrative cognitive model. In his PhD project Marien Lievaart tests some predictions made by Wilkowski’s model with individuals who score high on trait anger as well as clinical patients.
As a teenager, Marien had his doubts: shall I try for a sporty, physically oriented job and join the navy, or shall I delve into a study of the motivations behind human behaviour? A major knee operation at the age of 16 made the choice a little easier: “I thought it would be more sensible to choose something I can do until I am 70.”
His decision to study Psychology turned out to be the right one. Marien: “Whereas I was an average student at secondary school, now I was doing something I really liked, and my grades reflected this.”
To get the broadest possible orientation, he took on both a practical healthcare internship at a forensic psychiatric hospital, and an extensive, research-based internship. His interest in research developed during both of these internships: “Why did they utilize this method? Why do they practice like this and not like that? Why do the patients sometimes respond with such a level of anger?”
This prompted Marien to decide, having completed his Master’s degree, to continue doing research. A vacancy for PhD researcher on anger gave him the opportunity to look for these answers.
“My research is based on Wilkowski’s model,” Marien explains. “I aim to test various predictions from this model, to see whether the relationships specified in the model are right and whether other relationships can be established. The research focuses specifically on people who score high on trait anger – people who become angry more often or more intensively than the average person – and the (neuro)cognitive processes underlying this trait.”
For example: someone knocks over your drink in a bar. How you interpret this – did they do it on purpose or was it an accident? – will influence how you react. Marien: “People high on trait anger are assumed to be more likely to see such a situation and/or the transgressor’s actions as hostile. I am investigating if this is indeed the case, whether these interpretations are actually related to individual differences in angry reactivity, and how these hostile interpretations are related to other information processing processes.”
Rumination & Effortful control
Another aspect of Marien’s research focuses on the effects of rumination; repeatedly thinking about the situation that caused the angry feelings as well as planning for revenge. Next to hostile interpretations and rumination, the third cognitive process he is investigating is called effortful control; the ability to suppress subdominant responses, in this case angry impulses. Marien: “The extent of effortful control is, we believe, predictive of how often anger will be expressed in a destructive way, how long the anger-episode lasts, and the extent to which someone has a disposition to become angry.”
For his research, he carried out experiments involving making people angry. “We allowed one group to ruminate and tried to distract the other group from their angry thoughts. We then tested whether it was increasingly difficult for the ruminating group to suppress their angry impulses.”
It is more difficult to make someone angry for an experiment than you might think, Marien claims: “You can’t just say a load of stuff to make someone angry, and the method has to be the same for each participant. Otherwise you don’t know what you are measuring. But then again, you don’t want to make them too angry, because then they might not want to cooperate.”
In addition to challenging Wilkowski’s model, there are a number of innovative aspects to Marien’s research. For instance, he translated and investigated the psychometric properties of the State Trait Anger Expression Inventory-2 (STAXI-2; Spielberger, 1999), a self-report questionnaire describing the experience, expression and control of anger, and co-authored the Dutch-language manual of the STAXI-2, which was lacking (Hovens, Lievaart, & Rodenburgh, 2014).
A glimpse into the brain
Another new aspect is that this research also looks at what happens in the brains of people with a disposition towards anger. Marien: “We linked participants to an EEG while performing a few computer tasks. When measuring, for example, the degree of effortful control, we look at whether information in the brain is being processed differently.”
Short fuses wanted!
The experiments have now been completed and Marien is busy processing the results. But a shortage of test subjects with a short fuse means it is not yet possible to draw any conclusions from the results of the EEG tests. “It is difficult to find people who really have a disposition towards anger,” Marien says. “Which is a good thing of course, but unfortunately those are the people a clinical psychologist really wants to examine.”
He is therefore still looking for people with anger problems – people whose relationships and functioning are influenced by their anger. Marien: “People who frequently experience intense feelings of anger become intensely angry or stay angry for longer periods of time and as a result have lost friends or their job because of their anger, those are the people we would like to test in the lab.”
Setbacks during research are often outside of your control, Marien elaborates: “A PhD is a job that demands a lot of persistence. Sometimes, things aren’t as expected. You have to deal with this and come up with solutions. Dealing with setbacks during the research can be frustrating, but at the same time this is where the challenge lies, and the opportunity to grow as an academic.”
According to Marien, however, there are at least as many motivating aspects as there are frustrations. “For example, during trips to lectures and conferences, you get to know all kinds of people within your field – including the experts, and you can discuss your ideas with them. You might have a few books from an expert on your bookshelf at home, and suddenly you’re sitting across the table from them at a conference. Then you have the opportunity to talk and exchange ideas with them in person!”