Four Questions on the Catharsis Myth with Dr. Brad Bushman

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Dr. Brad Bushman is a social psychologist and aggression expert at The Ohio State University. He received his Ph.D. in Social Psychology from the University of Missouri. You can learn more about Dr. Bushman at http://www.comm.ohio-state.edu/people/faculty/userprofile/67.html

1.  What is catharsis?

That was defined in the article [here], on page 3, but here is a lot more information.

Catharsis: The word catharsis comes from the Greek word katharsis, which means to cleanse or purge. The term dates back to Aristotle, who taught that viewing tragic plays gave people emotional release from negative emotions. In Greek drama, the heroes didn’t just grow old and retire—they often suffered a violent demise.

Sigmund Freud, who believed that repressed negative emotions could build up inside an individual and cause psychological symptoms, revived the ancient notion of catharsis. Freud’s ideas form the basis of the hydraulic model of anger, which suggests that frustrations lead to anger and that anger, in turn, builds up inside an individual like hydraulic pressure inside a closed environment until it is vented or released. If the anger is not vented, the build-up will presumably cause the individual to explode in an aggressive rage.

According to catharsis theory, acting aggressively or even viewing aggression purges angry feelings and aggressive impulses into harmless channels. Almost as soon as researchers started testing catharsis theory, it ran into trouble. In one early experiment (Hornberger, 1959), participants who had been insulted by a confederate either pounded nails with a hammer for 10 minutes or did nothing. After this, all participants had a chance to criticize the confederate who had insulted them. If catharsis theory is true, the act of pounding nails should reduce anger and subsequent aggression. Unfortunately for catharsis theory, the results showed the opposite effect. Participants who pounded nails were more hostile toward the confederate afterward than were the ones who didn’t get to hammer any nails.

In 1973, Albert Bandura issued a moratorium on catharsis theory and the use of venting in therapy, and research evidence supported Bandura’s views (e.g., Geen & Quanty, 1977). Venting doesn’t work even among people who believe in the value of venting, and even among people who report feeling better after venting (Bushman, Baumeister, & Stack, 1999). In fact, venting has the opposite effect—it increases aggression. The better people feel after venting, the more aggressive they are. Venting can even increase aggression against innocent bystanders.

One variation of venting is intense physical exercise, such as running. When angry, some people go running or try some other form of physical exercise. Although exercise is good for your heart, it is not good for reducing anger (Bushman, 2002). The reason exercise doesn’t work very well is that it increases rather than decreases arousal levels. Angry people are highly aroused, and should try to calm down. Also, if someone provokes you after exercising, excitation transfer might occur (Zillmann, 1979). That is, the arousal from the exercise might transfer to the provocation, producing an exaggerated and possibly more violent response.

2.  What are the most common misconceptions about catharsis?

That just because something feels good, it is healthy. People feel good after venting anger (see Bushman et al., 1999), but the good feeling only reinforces aggressive behavior. People also feel good after eating chocolate and taking street drugs, but that does not mean those behaviors are healthy.

3.  What are the consequences of using catharsis as your primary anger expression style?

It harms you (e.g, increases one’s risk of cardiovascular disease) and others (e.g., increases the likelihood that you will aggress against others, even innocent bystanders – see Bushman et al., 1999)

4. If there was one thing you would want people to understand about catharsis, what would it be?

That although the theory sounds elegant, there is no scientific evidence to support it. Venting anger is like using gasoline to put out a fire. It only feeds the flame by keeping aggressive thoughts active in memory and by keeping angry feelings alive.