What is it about?

People can become frustrated and angry when a desired goal is blocked or they don’t get a reward they have worked for. This paper reviews the research showing that when other animals experience such “frustrative non-reward” they can become aggressive. In addition to highlighting yet another similarity between us and them, this observation sets the stage for developing animal models of human anger in the laboratory.

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Why is it important?

Anger is a primary emotion that can disrupt social relationships and, in the worst cases, lead to physical violence, injury and even death. Although the behavioral changes and risks of anger have been recognized since antiquity, and many behavioral and neuroimaging studies have provided new insights, arguments about the nature of anger continue to this day. Paradigms of frustrative non-reward in other animals could be used to discover more about anger’s behavioral characteristics and neural circuitry. Importantly, such paradigms could be used to develop and test pharmacological treatments and deep brain stimulation to help reduce anger in people who are not being helped by current psychological or medical approaches.


While there are clear differences between ourselves and other animals when it comes aggression and violence (no chimpanzee has ever been involved in a gun fight) there are numerous striking parallels (Santino, a chimp in a Swedish Zoo, tore off and stored chunks of concrete in his enclosure to throw at visitors hours later). The more I have looked, the more parallels I have found. For example, “offensive” aggression by a dominant animal in a group toward a subordinate is functionally equivalent to “proactive” aggression in us, the prime example of which is bullying. However, in over 50 years of thinking about it I could not identify the equivalent of human anger in other animals. It was only recently that I realized that the phenomena of frustrative non-reward are similar enough in us and them to be potentially usable as an animal model of human anger. In sharing this insight I hope other researchers will test the validity and limits of this conjecture and that it will prove useful in developing deeper understanding and more effective treatment of this troubling emotion.

Michael Potegal
University of Minnesota Twin Cities

Read the Original

This page is a summary of: Are reactions to frustrative nonreward in other animals a model for human anger? Neurobehavioral implications and therapeutic applications., Behavioral Neuroscience, October 2023, American Psychological Association (APA),
DOI: 10.1037/bne0000574.
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