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AthenaSpiegeloog 419: Harmony

Athena: Can We Reach Harmony Through Aggression?

The catharsis hypothesis claims that suppressed emotions, such as anger and frustrations, can be alleviated by expressing them through aggression. Traditionally,  the concept of catharsis was developed in ancient Greek philosophy. The word ‘catharsis’ means ‘cleansing’, mainly of negative feelings. Psychoanalytic literature adopted the concept of catharsis, which first appeared in the so-called “Study of Hysteria” (Studien über Hysterie (1895)) by Charles Breuer and Sigmund Freud. Freud suggested that previously suppressed memories and their associated negative emotions could be brought out from the?  The unconscious to the conscious by hypnosis. They could then be processed and discharged, as affective discharge, and the negative emotions were consequently thought to disappear. In modern psychology, the word ‘catharsis’ usually means stress relief – or release of emotions. But does this really work? Current literature investigates whether an expression of emotions through aggressive behaviour really decreases anger and negative emotions seem to offer an answer. 

Bushman et al. (2002) made angered participants hit a punching bag and either asked them to think about a person who had angered them (rumination group) or to think about becoming physically fit (distraction group). After hitting the punching bag, they indicated how angry they felt. Next, they were allowed to administer loud blasts of noise to the person who had angered them. People in the rumination group felt angrier than people in the distraction group and were also more aggressive, they administered a louder noise. The study concluded that rumination, contrary to the catharsis hypothesis, increases rather than decreases anger and aggression. Even doing nothing at all (which was tested by using a control group) was more effective than venting the anger.

Other studies (e.g., Bushman, Baumeister, & Stack, 1999) have also found that venting anger does not reduce stress, they did not feel lighter through the means of an aggressive act. If anything, it makes people more aggressive afterwards. Participants who read a pro-catharsis message (constructed like a newspaper article, e.g., “Research Shows that hitting Inanimate Objects is an Effective Way to Vent Anger”) and were afterwards allowed to engage in aggressive behaviour in the lab subsequently showed more aggressive behaviour (in the lab) than those who read the anti-catharsis message. 

However, some studies took a more nuanced look at the catharsis hypothesis. Previous studies found that “general catharsis” (meaning undirected aggression, such as hitting sandbags) does not reduce but rather increases an individual’s anger, however, the “goal catharsis” – that is actually attacking targets – can temporarily relieve anger, while still containing a risk of increasing the tendency of aggressiveness if it is used for a long time. Zhan et al. (2021) compared the effects of “general catharsis” and “goal catharsis” on anger-related responses, using a form of written catharsis. Results showed that the aggressive behaviour of participants who wrote down their general dissatisfaction (general catharsis condition) was significantly higher than that of participants who wrote to attack someone who irritated them (goal catharsis condition) but also significantly higher than participants who completed a simple recall task (control condition). However, there was no significant difference in the amount of aggressive behaviour between the latter two cases, suggesting that the catharsis effect does not work better than a simple recall task. The recall task was used to measure whether the catharsis exercise did better than just being distracted by an unrelated task, which was not the case. The research concluded that cathartic behaviour cannot be seen as an effective way for anger relief.

Summarizing the current viewpoints in psychological literature, cathartic behaviour does not seem to work along the lines of the relatively simple framework it was first thought of in. Most research found that expressing one’s feelings through aggression instead lead to an increase and not a decrease in negative feelings. Even very goal-directed cathartic actions did not do better than a simple distraction task in reducing anger and aggression. 

Looking at scientific literature it seems like expressing your anger and frustrations through aggressive behaviour – against a sandbag or even against a person – will not help you in feeling better. And while it might feel good in the first moment, “letting it all out” won’t help you, sadly. So next time you are angry and frustrated, make yourself a tea and try to relax a little. Sounds boring, but that is sometimes the case when following the advice of science.

Photo by Noah Buscher

References

-Bushman, B. J., Baumeister, R. F., & Stack, A. D. (1999). Catharsis, aggression, and persuasive influence: Self-fulfilling or self-defeating prophecies?. Journal of personality and social psychology, 76(3), 367.
-Bushman, B. J. (2002). Does venting anger feed or extinguish the flame? Catharsis, rumination, distraction, anger, and aggressive responding. Personality and social psychology bulletin, 28(6), 724-731.
-Freud, S. (1987). Entwurf einer Psychologie (1950 [1895]). In Gesammelte Werke: Texte aus den Jahren 1885 bis 1938 (pp. 375-386).
-Zhan, J., Yu, S., Cai, R., Xu, H., Yang, Y., Ren, J., & Luo, J. (2021). The effects of written catharsis on anger relief. PsyCh Journal, 10(6), 868-877.
Photo by Noah Buscher

The catharsis hypothesis claims that suppressed emotions, such as anger and frustrations, can be alleviated by expressing them through aggression. Traditionally,  the concept of catharsis was developed in ancient Greek philosophy. The word ‘catharsis’ means ‘cleansing’, mainly of negative feelings. Psychoanalytic literature adopted the concept of catharsis, which first appeared in the so-called “Study of Hysteria” (Studien über Hysterie (1895)) by Charles Breuer and Sigmund Freud. Freud suggested that previously suppressed memories and their associated negative emotions could be brought out from the?  The unconscious to the conscious by hypnosis. They could then be processed and discharged, as affective discharge, and the negative emotions were consequently thought to disappear. In modern psychology, the word ‘catharsis’ usually means stress relief – or release of emotions. But does this really work? Current literature investigates whether an expression of emotions through aggressive behaviour really decreases anger and negative emotions seem to offer an answer. 

Bushman et al. (2002) made angered participants hit a punching bag and either asked them to think about a person who had angered them (rumination group) or to think about becoming physically fit (distraction group). After hitting the punching bag, they indicated how angry they felt. Next, they were allowed to administer loud blasts of noise to the person who had angered them. People in the rumination group felt angrier than people in the distraction group and were also more aggressive, they administered a louder noise. The study concluded that rumination, contrary to the catharsis hypothesis, increases rather than decreases anger and aggression. Even doing nothing at all (which was tested by using a control group) was more effective than venting the anger.

Other studies (e.g., Bushman, Baumeister, & Stack, 1999) have also found that venting anger does not reduce stress, they did not feel lighter through the means of an aggressive act. If anything, it makes people more aggressive afterwards. Participants who read a pro-catharsis message (constructed like a newspaper article, e.g., “Research Shows that hitting Inanimate Objects is an Effective Way to Vent Anger”) and were afterwards allowed to engage in aggressive behaviour in the lab subsequently showed more aggressive behaviour (in the lab) than those who read the anti-catharsis message. 

However, some studies took a more nuanced look at the catharsis hypothesis. Previous studies found that “general catharsis” (meaning undirected aggression, such as hitting sandbags) does not reduce but rather increases an individual’s anger, however, the “goal catharsis” – that is actually attacking targets – can temporarily relieve anger, while still containing a risk of increasing the tendency of aggressiveness if it is used for a long time. Zhan et al. (2021) compared the effects of “general catharsis” and “goal catharsis” on anger-related responses, using a form of written catharsis. Results showed that the aggressive behaviour of participants who wrote down their general dissatisfaction (general catharsis condition) was significantly higher than that of participants who wrote to attack someone who irritated them (goal catharsis condition) but also significantly higher than participants who completed a simple recall task (control condition). However, there was no significant difference in the amount of aggressive behaviour between the latter two cases, suggesting that the catharsis effect does not work better than a simple recall task. The recall task was used to measure whether the catharsis exercise did better than just being distracted by an unrelated task, which was not the case. The research concluded that cathartic behaviour cannot be seen as an effective way for anger relief.

Summarizing the current viewpoints in psychological literature, cathartic behaviour does not seem to work along the lines of the relatively simple framework it was first thought of in. Most research found that expressing one’s feelings through aggression instead lead to an increase and not a decrease in negative feelings. Even very goal-directed cathartic actions did not do better than a simple distraction task in reducing anger and aggression. 

Looking at scientific literature it seems like expressing your anger and frustrations through aggressive behaviour – against a sandbag or even against a person – will not help you in feeling better. And while it might feel good in the first moment, “letting it all out” won’t help you, sadly. So next time you are angry and frustrated, make yourself a tea and try to relax a little. Sounds boring, but that is sometimes the case when following the advice of science.

References

-Bushman, B. J., Baumeister, R. F., & Stack, A. D. (1999). Catharsis, aggression, and persuasive influence: Self-fulfilling or self-defeating prophecies?. Journal of personality and social psychology, 76(3), 367.
-Bushman, B. J. (2002). Does venting anger feed or extinguish the flame? Catharsis, rumination, distraction, anger, and aggressive responding. Personality and social psychology bulletin, 28(6), 724-731.
-Freud, S. (1987). Entwurf einer Psychologie (1950 [1895]). In Gesammelte Werke: Texte aus den Jahren 1885 bis 1938 (pp. 375-386).
-Zhan, J., Yu, S., Cai, R., Xu, H., Yang, Y., Ren, J., & Luo, J. (2021). The effects of written catharsis on anger relief. PsyCh Journal, 10(6), 868-877.
Anne Sophie Giacobello

Author Anne Sophie Giacobello

Anne Sophie (1996) specialised in Brain and Cognition in her third year of psychology. She likes thinking about the connections between psychology, politics and society and never leaves the house without her journal, a pen and her current read.

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