By Will Schwalbe — Even the most placid soul can find her or himself in the midst of a full-fledged, take-no-prisoners flame war. One minute you are scoring a minor point, then a few more emails go back and forth, and soon you are choosing the perfect vicious barb to complete an angry screed.

We all know jerks who live for this kind of angry exchange. This post is not for them. This is for those of us who would rather not spend our lives composing savage emails – and who realize the enormous danger they post to our careers. One livid email, especially if taken out of context, can seriously damage your reputation.

Recently, a distinguished UK television producer wrote an angry email to her staff when they had neglected (or purposefully forgotten?) to ask her to sign a birthday card that was to be presented to one of the employees. That peeved email is now enjoying a very active and healthy life online and in the UK press. Perhaps some major aggravation was the spark for the boss’s intemperate email outburst? No one will ever know or really care. The birthday card email lives on forever.

So why do angry email exchanges happen to even placid souls?

Harvard psychologist Dan Gilbert, author of Stumbling on Happiness, wrote the following New York Times Op-Ed about conflicts around the world. It seems to apply equally well to the subject of flame wars.

“In a study conducted by Sukhwinder Shergill and colleagues at University College London, pairs of volunteers were hooked up to a mechanical device that allowed each of them to exert pressure on the other volunteer’s fingers.

“The researcher began the game by exerting a fixed among of pressure on the first volunteer’s finger. The first volunteer was then asked to exert precisely the same amount of pressure on the second volunteer’s finger. The second volunteer was then asked to exert the same amount of pressure on the first volunteer’s finger. And so on.”

The results were fascinating. The researchers reported that the volunteers typically responded with 40 percent more pressure than they had experienced. Concludes Gilbert:

“Each volunteer was convinced that he was responding with equal force and that for some reason the other volunteer was escalating. Neither realized that the escalation was the natural byproduct of a neurological quirk that causes the pain we receive to seem more painful than the pain we produce, so we usually give more pain than we receive.”

Moral of story? For preservation of your job, your business relationships, and your friendships – next time you find yourself in a situation where the emails are flying fast and furious, do consider that you may be as responsible for the escalation as the other party. When you feel your temperature rising, it’s a good sign that it’s time stop emailing and, perhaps, to pick up the phone or schedule a meeting or just let the issue go. Unless, of course, you want your version of the birthday card email to appear on the nightly news. In that case, in the immortal words of Clint Eastwood: “Make my day.”

Will Schwalbe is the co-author with David Shipley of Send: The Essential Guide to Email for Office and Home.