Catharsis and Anger: A Summary

In my class Research Methods in Psychological Science, I wrote a summary of a research article on the effect of venting when angry. The findings were very interesting to me, so I decided to share my summary here.

Article: Bushman, B. J. (2002). Does venting anger feed or extinguish the flame? Catharsis, rumination, distraction, anger, and aggressive responding. Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin, 28, 724-731. doi:10.1177/0146167202289002.

The common idea that venting anger through physical aggression decreases anger, catharsis theory, was tested in this study by Bushman (2002). Cognitive neoassociation theory, an exact opposite theory which states that venting anger through physical aggression increases angry feelings, was also tested. Bushman predicted that following catharsis theory would make participants less angry, and following cognitive neoassociation theory would make participants angrier by not allowing them to vent their frustrations. Catharsis theory consists of two forms of venting: rumination, in which participants are told to think about the cause of their anger while being physically aggressive, and distraction, in which participants are distracted from their anger but still are physically aggressive. The questions posed by this study included whether or not catharsis theory would make participants less angry, and whether rumination would make participants less angry than distraction.

The results of 300 undergraduate men and 300 undergraduate women were recorded during this single-blind study, with 100 participants of each gender distributed into each of the experimental groups: rumination, distraction, and control. All 600 of the participants underwent the same treatment in the beginning, but the way they were told to deal with their anger afterwards changed between the three different groups. Each of the participants wrote an essay on a personal opinion, then a fellow participant, who was not actually real, gave them very bad evaluations on their essay, which angered them. The participants then rated their anger, and the rumination and distraction groups were given the chance to act on it with a punching bag. Participants in the rumination group hit the punching bag with the thought of the fellow (nonexistent) participant in mind. Participants in the distraction group hit the punching bag as a form of exercise, focusing them away from their anger. Participants in the control group merely sat quietly for several minutes. Then every group completed a form to determine their mood. The next part of the study involved a competition between each of the participants and the nonexistent participant who had wronged them. Whoever was quicker to press a button would avoid getting a blast of noise, and the participants could control the decibels and duration of the blast given to the slower contestant. This showed the researcher how the participants would choose to be aggressive towards the person who angered them.

The results from these exercises posed a direct contradiction to the hypotheses and previous popular thoughts about venting anger. Any of the participants who engaged in rumination and even distraction with physical aggression showed more anger and aggression than the control group that did not participate in hitting the punching bag. There was also no significant increase in positive mood for any of the groups. The anger levels for the distraction group were less than for the rumination group, but the two groups did not show much difference in levels of aggressive behavior, which suggests that physical aggression, like hitting a punching bag, can still increase aggression.

By the end of this study, the data supported cognitive neoassociation theory in that venting increases anger and aggression. The study included any possible confounding variables with the differences in gender and desire to hit the punching bag. Even though I personally have never felt much calmer after venting my anger, I (as well as some punching bag manufacturers, I’m sure) would prefer a direct course of action to make myself feel better, so the evidence surrounding venting anger is difficult to accept. However, further studies may need to be done to completely disregard catharsis theory, due to the long-term effects of anger. The original reasoning behind catharsis theory was that if people do not release their anger, eventually they will explode. Therefore, the question remains: will people who do not vent now be angrier later?

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