Alberta Report

Monday, May 31, 1999

Real Men Don't Boil Over

New Research Suggests That 'Letting Off Steam' Only Increases Aggression

Enraged wrestlers: Always venting, always angry.

As her counsellor urges her on, a woman tentatively taps her husband's arm with a foam bat. It is not much of a blow. But with a bit more encouragement the couple is soon expressing their anger against one another in a five-minute long fight with the soft weapons. Such activities have long been encouraged by therapists who believe that purging angry feelings through aggressive action or fantasy-catharsis-can reduce more dangerous aggressive urges and rid people of anger. But in a reversal of the 20th century's received wisdom, a study published in the March issue of the American Psychological Association's Journal of Personality and Social Psychology finds that venting anger through aggressive action results in increased aggression both toward the person who is the object of the anger and other people as well.

"Our findings suggest that media messages advocating catharsis may be worse than useless," writes study author Brad Bushman, an Iowa State University psychology professor. Mr. Bushman traces the idea of catharsis back to Aristotle, who believed that watching tragic theatre relieved pent-up feelings. In modern times, Freud taught that emotions build up internally to the point of eruption unless otherwise released. Modern self-help books mistakenly preach the same gospel. "Pop writers may think they are offering helpful, sage advice," writes Mr. Bushman. "But the effect of advocating catharsis may be to cause a general increase in aggressive behaviour."

In the Iowa State study researchers told 707 first-year psychology students that the experiment sought to measure how people perceived others in different types of interactions. The experimentees first read a series of fake newspaper articles, one of which discussed activities like hitting a punching bag as an aggression control device, from either a pro-catharsis, anti-catharsis or neutral point of view. Students then wrote short essays defending their stand on abortion and were told their paper would be evaluated by another student in the next room. Instead, researchers wrote negative evaluations on the papers and included the comment, "This is one of the worst essays I have read!"

After reading the review, subjects ranked which activities they would most like to perform, such as playing solitaire or hitting a punching bag. If they did not choose the punching bag as their first option, the researcher said they needed more people in that activity and strapped the gloves on all but a few in a control group that did nothing for two minutes.

Researchers found the pro-catharsis message increased subjects' desires to hit the punching bag. But even though the upset subjects believed cathartic activity should reduce anger levels, in the next segment of the experiment they were more aggressive towards the person they thought had marked their essay than was the group who read the anti-catharsis message or who did nothing. Combined with other research, these results convinced researchers that venting anger is a self-defeating technique. "Perhaps media endorsement of cathartic release should come to be regarded as a potential danger to public health, peace and social harmony," the study concludes.

In fact, some psychologists say popular notions about venting anger have always been too simplistic. "Releasing energy is one behavioural technique to reduce rage," says Edmonton psychologist Shirley Vandersteen. "If it works, fine. But in the long run you have to do more." Behaviour-stopping techniques are the first step for a person with anger control problems, she believes. But people must also deal with the hurt and the feeling of threat underlying their emotions.

"Conflict can be healthy," Ms. Vandersteen explains, adding that neither venting nor suppressing angry emotions are the right choices in a conflict situation. "A healthy response is expressing your feelings, but realizing you can't control another person's behaviour."

Attempting to use anger to control others lands some people in prison, says Dawn Aimoe, a personal development program facilitator at the maximum security Edmonton Institution. "A lot of guys come in here believing venting is the way to work through anger," she says. "It feels good, but it doesn't make them less angry, or teach them to stop being angry."

Inmates with anger problems undergo a 26-session program to learn how to cope. "First we look at topics of anger and aggression, how they are different and how you can have one without the other," says Ms. Aimoe. "The benefits of handling things with anger and aggression are immediate, but short-term. The costs are long-term and large."

Inmates learn relaxation techniques to lower their heart rate in angry situations. They also keep records to gain knowledge of the triggers and thought patterns which cause and reinforce angry feelings, such thoughts as, "He's doing that on purpose." The prisoners' goal is to control high-risk emotional situations in an assertive, but not aggressive, manner by the time they complete the course.

But not everyone believes that even learning to express anger positively is a solution. "Experts will say things like 'Your feelings are not good or bad, right or wrong,' or 'I think you've got to get in touch with your anger,'" says William Coulson, director of research at the Council of Ethnopsychology in Comptche, California. "But there is no evidence that anger is best when benignly expressed. It could be best when buried."

Mr. Coulson points out that traditional ways of dealing with emotion may have more validity than modern experts believe. "They point to the example of grandmother who says, 'Don't feel bad, smile,'" he says, "which they interpret as, 'I feel bad when you're grumpy, so smile.' But maybe grandmother knows that it is possible to just not feel grumpy."

Mr. Coulson believes that psychology's approach to anger can actually make things worse. "It is not necessarily a good thing to work through anger with your spouse, or for Eric Harris [one of the teens responsible for the Columbine High School tragedy in Littleton, Colorado] to be put through an anger management program," says Mr. Coulson, referring to Harris' having taken anger therapy. "It is conceivable that one thing led to another."

-- Carla Yu

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