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.

5 thoughts on “Four Questions on the Catharsis Myth with Dr. Brad Bushman

  1. Catharsis doesn’t solve a person’s problem and doesn’t clear anger away either. To get rid of the problem. The person suffering mental or verbal attacks needs to attack the problem at the source.

    It is possible to set conditions in the aspect of the mental realm that is common to all to prohibit the person or persons who intends to harm/ violate either verbally or by means of mental attacks. Such conditions are binding so the attacker suffers harm if they move to make a mental attack or intent to do harm. It is effortless and only involves holding an image in mind. A drawing can be made to enhance that image in mind.

    The person does not become aggressive by this means and finds peace of mind so their metabolism returns to rest.

    • sometimes experimental psychologists seem to support non-sense and non-scientifically based ideas only to obtain fame (publications=money). The problem is that words can, like bad informations, hurt human psychology and physiology in many ways… so I think that they’re doing big harm to those who wants to know how reality is like. Good work Bushman!! :D (I hope a really better work in respect to your previous!!)

  2. “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. “: it really depends on how you interpret exercises… after 20km of running I really doubt you have the power to exert rage… many researches on the issue confirm this. Bushman’s
    theory is scientifically unsupported, at least on this issue.

  3. Oh no. I have been a firm believer in the power of venting :/ Recently tho, I have started to question myself about whether it does just keep my husband and I feeding off each other’s venting and it never really resolves any issues, but only seems to magnify them and keep them alive instead of just letting it go and trying to move on. Misery loves company is not a very healthy attitude. Maybe one of my new years resolutions will be to try to not vent so often. I’m sure I can’t stop altogether tho, because sometimes I just feel like I will explode if I don’t tell someone or vent about my problem that is causing me angst.

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