Catharsis

A new venue has opened up in Melbourne:  a place you can go to break stuff. Like, really break it. Smash it. Crush it. With a baseball bat. The target of all this beating would be wineglasses, crockery, porcelain; mostly kitchenware, as far as I can tell.

And why? To quote the Broadsheet article:

“It’s a healthy reaction we’ve all had: you get a bit frustrated and you feel like throwing something at the wall,” says creator Ed Hunter. “I thought, why not give into that in a safe environment?”

I sort of agree with this. There’s nothing inherently unhealthy about anger and frustration. And, indeed, if you feel like throwing something at the wall, you are better off doing that in a safe environment than in an unsafe environment.

But. Of course there is a but. It seems to me like this idea (especially the link between “step 2: break things” and “step 3: feel good”, highlighted on their webpage) relies on the idea of catharsis. Catharsis is the process of releasing an emotion (in this case anger) rather than keeping it suppressed – “blowing off steam”, giving vent to the feeling – in order to feel better afterwards. And, according to wikipedia, there is some research suggesting that venting anger helps some people feel better in the short term.

The problem, I think, is that even if you feel better after hitting things, it doesn’t seem to make you less likely to then also hit the next person who comes along. In a really relevant study from 2002, Bushman first made his participants (students) really angry, by giving them negative and overly personal criticisms on an essay they wrote in the lab. The criticisms were ostensibly from another student, with whom participants were told they would be interacting later. Then, a third of the participants had a chance to “vent their anger” – not by swinging a baseball bat at some plates and glasses, but close – by  punching a punching bag while thinking of the critical student.This was referred to as the “rumination” group. A second group of participants also punched the punching bag, but while thinking about physical exercise – this was the “distraction” group. Finally, the last third of participants did nothing. This was the “control” group.

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(This, by the way, is an incredible manipulation of the independent variable; catharsis vs. distraction vs. control. Soooooo much social psych research (my own included!) manipulates variables by giving participants different versions of the same scenario to read. Punching bags blow written scenarios out of the water in terms of experimental realism. )

So, what happened, after the students had “blown off steam”? Well, the students in the rumination group, who had thought about their new nemesis while punching the bag, reported being more angry after the activity, than the students in the other two groups. More importantly, they also engaged in more aggressive behaviour towards the critical students afterwards, than did the students in the control group. Aggressive behaviour was here measured by the intensity and duration of an unpleasant blast of noise administered to the other student. (The distraction group engaged in an in-between amount of aggressive behaviour, but the differences between distraction-rumination and distraction-control were not statistically significant.)

The conclusion from the paper, which will do just as well here, is as follows:

Catharsis theory predicts that venting anger should get rid of it and should therefore reduce subsequent aggression. The present findings, as well as previous findings, directly contradict catharsis theory (e.g., Bushman et al., 1999; Geen & Quanty, 1977). For reducing anger and aggression, the worst possible advice to give people is to tell them to imagine their provocateur’s face on a pillow or punching bag as they wallop it, yet this is precisely what many pop psychologists advise people to do. If followed, such advice will only make people angrier and more aggressive.

I might not say “worst possible“, and I don’t know what follow-up studies have been done to look at whether “such advice will make people angrier and more aggressive” in all cases, everywhere… so go ahead, go to The Break Room and smash a glass or two. Just don’t say you (and your nemesis) weren’t warned.

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