According to catharsis theory, acting aggressively or even viewing aggression is an effective way to reduce angry feelings and aggressive impulses. The word catharsis comes from the Greek word katharsis, which, literally translated, means “a cleansing or purging.” The first recorded mention of catharsis occurred in Aristotle’s Poetics. Aristotle taught that viewing tragic plays gave people emotional release (katharsis) from negative feelings such as pity and fear. In Greek drama, the tragic hero didn’t just grow old and retire—he often suffered a violent demise. By watching the characters in the play experience tragic events, the viewer’s own negative feelings were presumably purged and cleansed. This emotional cleansing was believed to benefit both the individual and society.
Catharsis also played an important role in ancient religious and magical healing rituals. By venting their emotions, people presumably called forth and expelled the demons and evil spirits that possessed their bodies.
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The ancient notion of catharsis was revived by Sigmund Freud, who believed that repressed negative emotions could build up inside an individual and cause psychological symptoms, such as hysteria (nervous outbursts). Freud believed that expressing hostility was much better than bottling it up inside.
Freud’s therapeutic ideas on emotional catharsis form the basis of the so-called hydraulic model of anger, based on the idea of water pressure (hydraulic means “water-related”). The hydraulic model suggests that frustrations lead to anger and that anger, in turn, builds up inside an individual, like hydraulic pressure inside a closed environment, until it is released in some way. If you don’t let your anger out but try to keep it bottled up inside, it will eventually cause you to explode in an aggressive rage. The modern theories of catharsis are based on this hydraulic model.
The entry on Media Violence and Aggression discusses whether viewing violence increases aggression. This entry will therefore focus on whether acting aggressively (e.g., screaming, yelling, hitting, kicking) increases aggression.
Belief in Catharsis Is Widespread
The belief in the value of venting is widespread around the world. For example, for over 20 years Tokyo residents have been venting their frustrations at an annual screaming contest. The use of a concept in the popular press is a sign of how widespread it is. Catharsis messages frequently appear in plays, films, television programs, radio programs, magazines, and newspapers.
You can even buy products to vent your anger. For example, the “Tension Shooter” is a wood gun that shoots up to six rubber bands per round at targets that can be personally labeled (e.g., Boss, Mother-in-Law). Another product is “Wham-It,” an inflatable punching bag. Products such as these are based on the hydraulic model of anger. The companies that make them count on customers who believe that venting anger against inanimate objects is safe, healthy, and effective. If there were no such customers, such products would not exist.
The concept of catharsis even infiltrates everyday language. In the English language, a pressure cooker is often used as a metaphor for anger. (A pressure cooker is a pot used to cook food under pressure, which reduces cooking time. The pot has a locking lid and valve that can be used to reduce pressure.) People are like pressure cookers, and their anger is like the fluid inside the cooker. As the anger increases, the fluid rises. People talk about anger “welling up inside” a person. If people are very angry, their “blood boils” or they reach the “boiling point.” If the anger becomes too intense, people “explode,” or “blow up.” To prevent the explosion, people are encouraged to “vent their anger,” “blow off steam,” “let it out,” and “get it off their chest.”
Research Evidence for Catharsis
If catharsis theory is true, then venting anger should decrease aggression because people should get rid of the anger. Almost as soon as psychology researchers began conducting scientific tests of catharsis theory, they ran into trouble. In one of the first experiments on the topic, published in 1959, participants received an insulting remark from someone who pretended to be another participant (a confederate). Then some of the insulted participants were set to work pounding nails for 10 minutes—an activity that resembles many of the “venting” techniques that people who believe in catharsis continue to recommend even today. The act of pounding nails should reduce subsequent aggression (if catharsis theory is true). Participants in the control group received the same insult but did not pound any nails. Participants were then given a chance to criticize the person who had insulted them. The results showed that people who had hammered the nails were more hostile toward the accomplice afterward than were the ones who didn’t get to pound any nails. Apparently, venting anger against those nails made people more willing to vent anger against another person. Numerous other studies have found similar findings. In 1973, Albert Bandura, a famous social psychologist, issued a statement calling for a moratorium on catharsis theory and the use of venting in therapy. A comprehensive review of the research published in 1977 found that venting anger does not reduce aggression; if anything, it makes people more aggressive afterward. The authors also concluded that venting anger can reduce physiological arousal (e.g., heart rate, blood pressure), but only if people express their anger directly against the person who angered them and that person cannot retaliate. Venting against substitute targets does not reduce arousal. More recent research has shown that venting doesn’t work even among people who believe in the value of venting and even among people who report feeling better after venting. Aggression breeds further aggression.
One variation of venting is intense physical exercise, such as running. Although physical exercise is good for your heart, it is not very good for reducing anger. Angry people are highly aroused, and the goal is to decrease arousal levels. Exercise increases rather than decreases arousal levels. Also, if someone provokes you after exercising, the arousal from the exercise might transfer to the provocation, making you even angrier.
In summary, venting anger is like using gasoline to put out a fire: It just makes things worse. Venting keeps arousal levels high and keeps aggressive thoughts and angry feelings alive—it is merely practicing how to behave more aggressively.
If Venting Doesn’t Work, What Does?
If the metaphor of a pressure cooker is used to describe anger, there are three ways to deal with buildup of steam. The first approach is to try to contain the pressure. The problem with this approach is that it might cause the pressure cooker to explode when it can no longer contain the pressure. Stuffing anger inside and ruminating about it continually can lead to heart disease later in life. A second approach is to periodically siphon off some of the steam. This approach of venting anger or blowing off steam sounds good in theory, but it doesn’t work. A third approach is to turn down the flame and reduce the heat! With the heat down, the pressure will go down as well. This third approach is much more effective than the other two approaches at reducing anger.
All emotions, including anger, consist of bodily states (such as arousal) and mental meanings. To get rid of anger you can work on either of those. Anger can be reduced by reducing arousal levels, such as by relaxing. Anger can also be reduced by mental tactics, such as by reframing the problem or conflict, or by distracting oneself and turning attention to other, more pleasant topics. Certain behaviors can also help get rid of anger. For example, doing something such as kissing your lover, watching a comedy, petting a puppy, or performing a good deed can help, because those acts are incompatible with anger and so the angry state becomes impossible to sustain.
- 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.
- Bushman, B. J., Baumeister, R. F., & Stack, A. D. (1999). Catharsis, aggression, and persuasive influence: Self-fulfilling or self-defeating prophecies? Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 76, 367-376.
- Geen, R. G., & Quanty, M. B. (1977). The catharsis of aggression: An evaluation of a hypothesis. In L. Berkowitz (Ed.), Advances in experimental social psychology (Vol. 10, pp. 1-37). New York: Academic Press.