"Blowing Off Steam" May Not Reduce Anger
Contrary to popular belief, venting anger by taking it out on a punching bag may not help. In fact, a new psychological study suggests, that only increases hostility.
The findings "directly contradict" the popular belief in catharsisthe release or expression of emotions such as anger to keep them from building up inside.
"Our findings suggest that media messages advocating catharsis may be worse than useless," the researchers said. Self-help books and articles in the popular press often recommend that people satisfy their angry impulses by "blowing off steam" without causing physical harmby punching a pillow, for example.
The study tested whether catharsisin this case, hitting a punching bag for two minutescould reduce hostility in people who had been insulted. Punching the bag actually tended to make them more hostile.
"Hitting the punching bag led to subsequently higher levels of aggression, even among participants who had been led to believe in catharsis," the study found.
The study was done by psychologists from Iowa State University and Case Western Reserve University. Their findings appeared this month in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology.
In part of the study, 700 college students enrolled in a psychology class were put in a situation where they were insulted by an unseen partner. (Each was asked to write a brief essay on abortion and then was given the partners "evaluation," which included such disparaging comments as "This is one of the worst essays I have ever read!")
Participants then engaged in head-to-head computer competition testing their reaction time. Half were led to believe their partner was the same partner who had insulted them. Participants controlled the volume and duration of a blast of noise their partner would receive if the partner was slow to respond to a question.
Some of the students first tried to vent their anger by hitting a punching bag for two minutes. That allowed researchers to test whether catharsis would reduce the participants anger and aggression during the competition.
It didnt. Participants who had tried to vent their anger were more likely to direct loud and lengthy noise blasts at their partner.
"The pervasiveness of false beliefs about catharsis makes them potentially harmful," the researchers said. "People expect that performing cathartic activities will reduce their anger and aggression, when cathartic activities are actually more likely to have the opposite effect."
Don Colburn, Washington Post, March 30, 1999