Madder than a wet hornet



Knight, with smoke coming out of his earsThe last angry coachAnger'n sportsAnger: Airing it outManaging anger















'bop bag' with image of the boss on it


Getting it off your chest
The conventional wisdom about anger says that bottling it up causes emotional and even physical woes. The wisdom is rooted in the idea that catharsis -- an emotional outburst -- can cleanse the soul. Aristotle mentioned catharsis way back when ancient Greece was modern Greece.

'boss' bop bag animated to teeter from side to sideBrad Bushman, who studies catharsis and anger at Iowa State University, says that in the 19th century, Sigmund Freud, Dr. Psychoanalysis himself, maintained that when people "repressed negative emotions, they would surface as psychological symptoms. He argued that if you were angry, you should not repress it, but express, it."

The argument that pent-up anger can explode into aggressive rage has gained widespread acceptance in American culture. But in laboratory experiments, whacking a punching bag or attacking a pillow actually seems to increase anger, not tame it, Bushman has found. "It's been tested several times, and there's virtually no scientific evidence to support catharsis."

In a boiling rage
More ominously, Bushman says expressing or ventilating anger also seems to increase aggression. In his experiments, students got steamed up when the experimenters insulted their writing. Then they had a chance to zap the experimenter with a loud noise; willingness to zap indicated more aggression.

Even though hitting a punching bag supposedly exorcises anger, punching made the students more likely to hit the buzz button. In fact, these participants set the noise about twice as loud and twice as long as those who did not hit the bag.

Further flouting the catharsis theory, they were actually less likely to hit the buzz button if they sat quietly for two minutes after insults about their writing sent them into a hissy fit.

The participants did enjoy the acting-out exercise. More than 70 percent of those who hit the punching bag say "they love it, it makes them feel better," says Bushman, "but it's really interesting ... the more they like it, the more aggressive they are" (see "Catharsis, Aggression..." in the bibliography).

That feeling may explain why catharsis retains credibility, but Bushman says two other factors also play a role:

Freud's pronouncements still have some credibility even though they were rooted in the psychoanalyst's experience with upper-class Europeans, not modern psychological science.

The media. Bushman argues that publicly raising Cain is a staple of pop culture. In the movie "Analyze This," he says, "Billy Crystal, as a psychiatrist, tells Robert Deniro, 'When I'm angry, I hit a pillow, why don't you try it?' So you have this professional advocating hitting a pillow to get rid of anger." Indeed, Bushman found that students who had read an article extolling the benefits of ventilating anger were more aggressive after whacking a punching bag in comparison to students who read a different article.

Whether ventilation works -- or is just a mass of hot air -- mass marketers seem eager to profit from belief in the notion, Bushman adds, with such items as an inflatable dummy with a pocket to hold a picture of your enemy, and a "tension shooter" that shoots rubber bands at targets labeled "boss," "taxman," and "mother-in-law."

Bushman suggests some common-sense tactics for reducing anger:

Delay. Let the anger dissipate. Take a time out and leave the situation until you cool down.
Distraction. Think about something else: take a walk or do a crossword puzzle.

Relaxation. Try to reduce arousal: take deep breaths, listen to relaxing music.

Incompatible response. Do something incompatible with anger and aggression: watch a comedy, help someone in need, kiss your lover.

Nonetheless, the "let it all hang out" philosophy of dealing with anger remains popular. "It's surprising how reluctant people are to believe our research," Bushman says. "I get calls from psychotherapists, they're angry, (they) tell me my research is wrong. I ask for some evidence that venting anger works, but there is none. This idea is so integrated into popular culture that people are reluctant to give it up."

a burr under the saddleReinventing venting
Not so fast, says Deborah Cox, a feminist psychologist and assistant professor in counseling at Southwest Missouri State College. She argues that laboratory studies like Bushman's only show what happens in the short term, and while venting may prolong anger and increase symptoms of aggression for a while, in the long term it may help identify deep-seated problems. To do so, the emotional display should meet two criteria, she says.

Venting must be conscious, "not just flailing your arms. If it's focused, you can sit down and become aware of who we're angry with and why. What are the deeper implications of being injured by this person?"

Venting must encourage awareness of the relationship that produces the anger. Not helpful is the "detached venting" that occurs when a tired parent returns from work with a burr under the saddle and thrashes out against an innocent child. Says Cox, "It's misplaced, taken out of the relationship where the anger resides."

Hitting a punching bag made people more likely to act aggressively.A third characteristic for positive venting, says Steven Korner, a psychologist in New Jersey, is having the right audience. "Emotions are catching, like colds. If a kid says 'I want to kill him!', that may scare the heck out of a parent, but the kid is only talking. You have to tolerate emotion for venting to be good." Much better, he adds, would be for the parent to respond, "I know what you're saying, I've felt that way myself."

The argument over venting rests on a simple distinction, Korner says. "There's a difference between feeling something and doing something. ... the feeling part only becomes a problem if you can't hold the feeling."

Something stuck in your craw? Maybe you need anger management.


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