it off your chest
Brad 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."
a boiling rage
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:
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:
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 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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