What About that Loud Angry Parent on the Sidelines?

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Anyone who has been to a children’s sporting event has noticed that it seems as though there is always at least one parent yelling at the kids, at the coaches, or at the referees.  Have you ever wondered why? Have you ever wondered what they are yelling about?

In a 2012 study in The Journal of Applied Sports Psychology, Omli and LaVoi examined the behaviors of angry parents at sporting events.  They surveyed over 700 parents via an online questionnaire asking them to recall a time when they were upset or showed anger at one of their children’s sporting events.  This study was able to detect what exactly was making parents to become angry.  Once all data was collected the research team coded all responses into categories.

The research team found that many parents’ responses could be put into three categories.  These three categories include unjust conduct, which means that parents showed anger because they found something to be unfair or impartial.  For example, “the referee was not being fair or the coach was not being fair because they didn’t play my son more.”  The second category had to do with a lack of care toward their child.  For example, when a coach exhibited behaviors that were cruel or unkind toward a particular child.  Finally, the third category had to do with incompetence like when the offender (e.g., referee, coach) was deemed incapable of doing his or her job.

While, this study was not able to examine the exact behavior of the parent who expressed anger, it was able to examine three situations that may provoke parents’ anger.  Therefore, moving forward perhaps future research could look at ways to reduce parents’ anger responses and to explore what kids learn when their parents become so upset.

By Rebecca Arrowood
Rebecca is a senior Psychology major and Human Development minor at the University of Wisconsin- Green Bay.  She will be attending graduate school to earn a Masters in Counseling Psychology next fall.

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.

The Foul Language of Politics

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We have been asked by some of our readers, as an addendum to a previous post on anger and politics, to write something about the tragic shooting in Arizona last week.  While it feels premature to comment on the motivations of the shooter, it seems reasonable to write more about the anger and aggression so prevalent in American politics. 

Much has already been made of the vitriolic language used by some candidates during this last election.  While this election cycle did seem more aggressive than most, there may be a deeper problem when it comes to how we talk about politics in America.  That is, our use of war as a metaphor for elections. 

Think for a moment about any one of the last few presidential elections.  In each case, the battle for the White House began with someone launching their campaign, traveling to battleground states to make their case and taking shots at their opponent.  In return, their opponent fired back, blasting them for their positions.  Back in the war rooms, their strategists plan to launch their next attack ad, targeting their opponent’s stances.  This continues… the candidates are bashed, hit, or dealt a blow, districts are targeted, candidates take aim, they fight for endorsements, they gain and lose ground, they go on the offensive, they defend themselves from attacks until, eventually, the showdown comes to an end and one is defeated

In fact, though most do not tend to think of it this way, even the word “campaign” has a military meaning: “A series of military operations undertaken to achieve a large-scale objective during a war” (American Heritage Dictionary, 2000).  In other words, the war metaphor is so deeply engrained in how we think of politics that even the word most often used to describe the process is combat term.  Such language is not meaningless.  How we talk about something is a reflection of how we think of it.    

There are other metaphors sometimes used to describe elections; the race metaphor or the debate metaphor.  Might we be better off if we thought of elections less as aggressive conflict and more as “an extended competition in which participants struggle to be the winner” or “a discussion involving opposing points”? To approach things this way means that candidates take the lead instead of gaining ground, they score points instead of taking shots or dealing blows, and they push to the finish line instead of going on the offensive. While not perfect, these may reflect healthier perspectives.

By Ryan C. Martin
To ask a question of All the Rage, visit the Submit a Question link under Contact Us

The Importance of Couple-Coping in Decreasing Relationship Conflict

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It has long been known that people under stress are prone to angry outbursts and, consequently, increased conflict in their relationships. It is not surprising, therefore, that individual coping skills are critical to managing stress and maintaining healthy relationships. However, new research in the Journal of Social and Personal Relationships points out how dyadic coping, when both partners respond to stressors together in a cooperative way, can lead to less intense relationship conflict.

Dyadic coping is when partners respond supportively to one another when under stress. People with good dyadic coping skills tend to delegate tasks in a healthy way when under duress and tend to work together in dealing with external stress. The study looked at the impact of individual and dyadic coping as they relate to stress, anger, and verbal aggression. Results indicated that, while individual coping skills were relevant, they were less relevant than dyadic coping skills.

The study’s lead author, Dr. Guy Bodenmann of the University of Zurich, says that clinicians “should be more aware of the deleterious impact of stress on couples’ interaction and daily life and consider this aspect in working with couples in prevention work as well as in therapy. The findings that stress increases the likelihood of verbal aggression is important as it shows that often couples (even those who are usually able to communicate adequately with each other) may lose this competence when under stress.” He says that because dyadic coping is so important to healthy expressions of anger, it is important to recognize that “strengthening couples’ coping may be a promising and important focus in improving the couples’ functioning.”

Dr. Bodenmann says that the primary message of this study is that “understanding stress, in one partner or the other, might provide important information for making relationship improvements. People enter relationships hoping for compassion and understanding and those relationships suffer a great deal when one or both partners engage in anger and aggression. Containing and eliminating angry outbursts, especially when they become physical, is one of the first steps that a person can take to improve a relationship.”

By Ryan C. Martin

Enraged Over Politics: Where the Anger Comes From

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Question: It seems there is so much anger over politics in the United States these days.  Is there more than there used to be and, if so, why?

It’s hard to say if there is more anger than there used to be without any formal means of assessing such a thing.  However, there probably is not more anger than there used to be, as much as the anger is more visible to people now.  People can easily capture video examples of anger and aggression at campaign rallies and post those videos on the Internet for all to see.  Likewise, weblogs, chain emails, and other sorts of discussion forums offer yet another venue for people to express their frustration.  Consequently, exposure to this might make people feel as though there is more anger over politics than in the past.

As for why politics elicits so much anger from people, it happens for the same reason that people get angry about anything (see Anger Basics for a description of why and when people get angry).  People may feel their personal or professional goals are being blocked, that their positions or opinions are being ignored or devalued, or that they can’t cope with the outcome.  There are a couple of factors, though, that make anger over politics especially prevalent.

Exaggerated Claims
It’s well known that politicians tend to make exaggerated claims about their accomplishments or their opponent’s positions.  Those claims are often designed with the explicit purpose of making people angry (e.g., “my opponent voted for the largest tax increase in history”, “my opponent wants to dismantle social security”).  Thus, it isn’t surprising that those who believe the claims respond with frustration.  Meanwhile, it’s likely that those who don’t believe them respond with anger over what they perceive as dishonesty.

Selective Attention
Related to these exaggerated claims, voters seem to have a habit of only paying attention to the information that supports their perspective.  They tend to believe the claims of the candidate they endorse and to perceive the claims of the other as being dishonest.  They then look only for evidence that confirms their positions and ignore the data that refutes them.  The Internet has made it all the easier to only pay attention to confirming evidence.  If people believe a certain thing, they can usually find a website to validate their position.  It’s also made the spread of these exaggerated claims even easier because anyone can post just about anything on the Internet or send it out via email without regard for truth or accuracy.

Ultimately, what this means is that people will dichotomize by lumping the candidates and their supporters into groups (e.g., completely right vs. completely wrong) and fail to understand how the other side of an issue may have some validity. 

Feelings of Isolation
Another interesting aspect of politics is that people find out, in a way they don’t normally, how many other people in the city, state, or country agree or disagree with them.  When one is on the losing side of an election, it’s easy to feel isolated (e.g., “I can’t believe there are so many people out there who don’t get it”).  That feeling of isolation can spawn feelings of resentment and frustration.  

Anger as Appropriate
Sometimes, what we perceive as an anger problem might be more of an impulse control/aggression problem.  There is actually a place for healthy and productive anger in the political process.  If we think of anger as a valuable tool in alerting us to problems and motivating us to confront those problems, it’s perfectly reasonable to get angry when elected officials and candidates act irresponsibly, endorse positions that may harm us, etc.  The decisions that are made by elected officials affect many people in very real ways.  Consequently, some are affected quite negatively and, potentially, unfairly by those decisions (e.g., decreased funding to certain programs, increased taxes) and an angry response might be both reasonable and healthy.

It is how one chooses to express that anger that matters most.  At times, people can voice their anger in a positive way and use it to solve problems.  There were many people this election cycle who were angry but didn’t throw things, push people, or become verbally abusive.  Instead, their anger motivated them to register voters, hold rallies, or just to get out to vote.  It’s when people lost control that we saw the more aggressive examples emerge and that is a far bigger problem than the anger.

By Ryan C. Martin
To ask a question of All the Rage, visit the Submit a Question link under Contact Us