Despite Popular Myth That "Venting" Reduces Anger, There Is No Scientific Basis for Belief in the Catharsis Effect
WASHINGTON - Contrary to popular belief, venting anger through physical aggression-such as hitting a punching bag or a pillow-does not decrease one's anger. In reality, such acting out only increases a person's hostility, according to research published in the March '99 issue of the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, published by the American Psychological Association.
In their study, psychologists Brad J. Bushman, Ph.D., and Angela D. Stack, of Iowa State University, and Roy F. Baumeister, Ph.D., of Case Western Reserve University sought to answer two questions. Can people be persuaded by a media message to deal with anger in a certain way? And, if people choose to attempt to vent their anger through physical aggression would they feel less anger after having done so (as the Catharsis theory suggests)?
To test the first question, 360 undergraduate students were exposed to either
a pro-or anti-catharsis media report. Additionally, within each group half the
students were angered and half were not. Subsequent findings showed that exposure
to a media message in support of catharsis can affect subsequent behavior.
Angry people expressed the highest desire to hit a punching bag when they had been exposed to a bogus newspaper article claiming that an effective tool for handling anger was to vent it toward an inanimate object. In contrast, students who were given a newspaper article that debunked the catharsis effect were relatively disinclined to hit the punching bag.
To test the second question, 700 different undergraduate students were put in a situation where they were insulted by an unseen study partner and then rank ordered a list of activities for later in the experiment including hitting a punching bag. Some students hit the punching bag, others did not. Students then engaged in a head-to-head computer competition with the same partner who had insulted them or with an innocent partner. During the computer competition, the participant was able to control the volume and duration of a blast of noise their partner would receive when they were slow to respond to a question. The purpose of combining these two activities was to test whether the act of hitting the punching bag (catharsis) would reduce the participant's anger and aggression during the second exercise.
Through both tests, the findings supported the researchers' hypothesis (and the results of earlier research) that venting one's anger does not decrease hostility; but rather increases it. Angered participants who read the pro-catharsis article wanted to hit the punching bag more than angered participants who read the anti-catharsis article. Furthermore, participants who did hit the punching bag were significantly more aggressive during the noise blast exercises than those who did not hit the bag.
"Pro-catharsis media messages may actually generate self-defeating prophecies," say the authors. "Telling people that aggressive activity is a good way to get rid of anger led them to choose aggressive activity, but performing this activity apparently failed to reduce anger The messages made people seek out aggressive release, but this initial venting then increased their subsequent aggression toward another person."
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