When you feel angry beating up on a pillow or punching bag actually makes you angrier.
What should you do when you get angry? Many people believe the best way to safely get rid of anger is by a process called catharsis, or venting your anger. For example an angry person could work off their anger by doing things like exercising, beating on a pillow, hitting a punching bag or just screaming as loud as they could. Although this advice is common in the popular media, does it really work at reducing anger? To answer that question researchers from Iowa State University and Case Western University conducted an experiment.
What was the research about?
Participants in the experiment first read a newspaper article, created by the experimenters, which talked about catharsis. Some participants read an article that said a Harvard psychologist had determined catharsis worked very well at relieving people’s anger (the Pro-catharsis article). Other participants read an article that said the Harvard psychologist had determined catharsis did not work at relieving people’s anger (the Anti-catharsis article). These articles were used to get participants to believe, or not believe, that catharsis worked.
Next participants wrote a short essay discussing their views on abortion and another participant in a different room (who didn’t really exist) graded their essay. To make the participants feel angry; their essays were always returned with a handwritten comment saying, “This is one of the worst essays I have every read!” After getting this bad feedback on their essay participants were given 2 minutes to hit a punching bag, if they wanted to, while the experimenter prepared the next part of the study.
To see how aggressive people would be, the participants played a game against another person. The participant had to hit a button faster than their opponent did; and if they won, they could blast their opponent with a loud noise as punishment. Some participants were told their opponent was the person who had graded their essay, and others were told the opponent was not the person who had graded their essay. The “opponent” was actually a computer that randomly let the participant win half of the time.
Results showed that participants who thought catharsis worked, and had hit the punching bag, were actually more aggressive against their opponent in the reaction time game. They blasted their opponent with louder noise than participants who read the Anti-catharsis article and had hit the punching bag. Who the opponent was didn’t matter. Even when the opponent was not the person who graded their essay, the Pro-catharsis participants who had hit the punching bag still blasted him with louder noise.
Why should it matter to me?
When we feel angry many of us are tempted to vent our anger, thinking it will help us calm down. Unfortunately, this venting actually builds up the anger and makes our problem worse. A better way to calm down is to get away from the situation and relax. Later, after we have cooled down, we are better able to constructively deal with the source of our anger.
Source: Bushman, Brad J., Baumeister, Roy F. & Stack, Angela D. (1999). Catharsis, Aggression and Persuasive Influence: Self-Fulfilling or Self-Defeating Prophecies? Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 76, 367-376.