Criminal Law, Philosophy
Anger, Provocation and Loss of Self‑Control: What
Does ‘Losing It’ Really Mean?
© Springer Science+Business Media B.V., part of Springer Nature 2018
Abstract Drawing on recent research in the philosophy of the emotions and empir-
ical evidence from social psychology, this paper argues that the concept of loss of
self-control at common law mischaracterises the relationship between the emotions
and their eﬀects on action. Emotions do not undermine reason in the ways oﬀenders
describe (and courts sometimes accept); nor do they compel people to act in ways
they cannot control. As such, the idea of ‘loss of self-control’ is an inaccurate and
misleading description of the psychological mechanisms at play in cases of emotion-
ally motivated killing, where there may not be any ‘loss of self-control’ as such.
Keywords Criminal defences · Provocation · Loss of self-control · Emotions
The defence of provocation is a partial defence to murder. If successful, it reduces a
potential murder conviction to one of manslaughter.
At the heart of the defence is
the idea of ‘loss of self-control.’ Defendants often describe the experience of losing
self-control as one where they ‘snap’ or ‘crack’ in response to the provocation, and
‘explode’ into violence. The ‘triggers’ for this loss of self-control are emotions like
anger, but more recently, the law has also recognised fear as a legitimate trigger for
* Sarah Sorial
Faculty of Law, Humanities and the Arts (Philosophy), The University of Wollongong,
For a detailed and fascinating examination of the history of this defence, see Jeremy Horder, Provoca-
tion and Responsibility (Oxford: Clarendon Press 1992).