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Why People Scream When Angry and other Functions of Behavior

Updated on March 5, 2012
Sue B. profile image

I am a mother, a social worker, a dream interpreter, and a writer.


Screaming and other responses to situations and emotions is a type of behavior. Behavior can be adaptive (helpful) or maladaptive (not helpful) to the individual. Behavior is reinforced and continues when it works for the individual in some way. This does not necessarily mean the behavior is directly rewarded in some way or that it benefits the person's life. Behavior can be reinforced just by getting attention (positive or negative attention). Read on to understand the main reasons for behavior. Once the reason or function of the behavior is understood, we can explore ways in which the individual can achieve a similar outcome in a more positive way.

Functions of Behavior

Attention: This is the most common reason for poor behavior. People need attention and we need to get our needs met. Sometimes getting attention for the wrong reasons still works.

  • Example 1: A kid in school doesn't have many friends. He starts to act out and even bully other kids at times. He starts to get attention from the other kids in his class even though a lot of this attention involves yelling back at him, talking about what he is doing, and other interactions that are not positive but are still giving him attention he was not getting before.
  • Example 2: A woman feels neglected by her boyfriend. She is a recovering alcoholic and decides to go out for a binge. Her boyfriend is attentive and concerned about her due to the relapse.

Escape: There are responsibilities and pressures we would like to avoid. Our behavior may be helping us avoid certain tasks or situations.

  • Example 1: A kid does not like taking a bath or brushing his teeth. Every night he acts out towards his parents when they attempt to start his part of his routine. Since it is so difficult to get him to take a bath and brush his teeth, his parents give up sometimes and he does not bath or brush his teeth as often as the parents would like.
  • Example 2: A man with a fear of public speaking calls out sick on the day of a presentation for work. The rest of his team must present the information without him.

Tangible: This involves some sort of material gain from behavior.

  • Example 1: A kid does not like the lunch her mother packs for her each day. She learns that if she forgets her lunch on the bus, her school allows her to eat a grilled cheese sandwich from the cafeteria- her favorite food. The child starts to forget her lunch almost daily.
  • Example 2: A woman feels she desperately needs money. She begins to deliver packages from one apartment to another- no questions asked- for a good amount of money. This goes against her better judgment and is not something she would normally do but she felt the money was too good to pass up.

Sensory/Personal: The behavior has a sensory or internal reward for the person independent of the environment. The person acts this way because somehow it feels good.

  • Example 1: A group of kids go to school in 95 degree weather. The school is not air conditioned. They run around the school naked and invoke a water bottle fight.
  • Example 2: A couple argues very loudly. They do not resolve anything and are actually making issues worse and hurting the other's feelings. They continue to scream at each other because it feels good to release the emotions. They are not sure how they can feel better so they decide to say hurtful things to the other. "If I can't feel better, I might as well make sure the other person is suffering just as much as me."

How to Change Behavior

Consequences change behavior. This does not mean that behaviors we do not want should be punished. Natural and logical consequences are the most likely to help teach us. People also need options of alternative behaviors in order to change. We often act in a way because we simply do not know what else to do. Yelling and screaming is often a primitive response we resort to when we are frustrated and feel we are simply out of options.

Behavior can be broken down into three parts:

  1. What happened before
  2. The reaction, the behavior
  3. What happens after- the consequence of the behavior

The key to changing behavior is in the natural and logical consequence. If someone gets what they want or the behavior is reinforced, they will act that way over and over again. However, if there are negative consequences to the behavior (ie losing friends, not getting attention, getting embarrassed, legal trouble, etc.) we are less likely to act that way again.

So why do people act poorly despite negative consequences?

The answer is simple- we need to know what else do to. Sometimes it is not as simple as not doing something again. We need to know what we should do instead, what are our alternatives? How can we resolve our problem effectively in a different way or how can we get what we want in a better way?

Examples of Constructive Behavior


  • Calmly asking for attention.
  • Completing positive tasks or achievements that result in positive attention.
  • Giving others attention- often times attention is reciprocated back.


  • Ask if the task or responsibility can be avoided.
  • Ask someone to share the burden of the task or responsibility.
  • Ask if the task or responsibility can be modified in some way as to make it a little more pleasant for you.


  • Ask for the item desired.
  • Explore ways the item desired can be achieved or earned.
  • Begin to engage is more positive behaviors that could result in obtaining the tangible item so create a win-win situation.


  • Understand why the behavior is so pleasant for you or how it gives you relief in some way.
  • Explore alternatives to gain the same satisfaction from a more positive and helpful behavior.
  • Seek professional counseling (individual, couples, etc.) to help explore alternative means of self-expression and problem solving.
  • Read self-help books that may help you figure out alternative ways to express yourself or to achieve the same relief without also harming others or yourself.
  • Try to journal.
  • Try to write letters about a disagreement you had expressing your emotions. Use "I" statements and do not state anything just to offend or hurt the other person.
  • Try to change your mindset so that your behavior is not focused on revenge or making someone feel the way you do-- instead focus on solutions and the future. It is important to resolve the issue, move on, and attempt to make changes that will decrease the likelihood that you will feel this way again.
  • Read Related Articles that may be useful on relationships, communication, positive thinking and self-esteem.


Submit a Comment

  • Journey * profile image

    Nyesha Pagnou MPH 6 years ago from USA

    Wow, that photo/ distorted imsge is so disturbing.

    :)Thanks for this very informative article that offers excellent advice on redirecting maladaptive behaviors.