"letting off steam" increases aggression -- 3/31/16

Today's encore selection -- from "Busting Big Myths in Popular Psychology" by Scott O. Lilienfeld, Steven Jay Lynn, John Ruscio, and Barry L. Beyerstein. "Letting off steam" doesn't alleviate anger, it exacerbates it:

"People often opine that releasing anger is healthier than bottling it up. In one survey 66 percent of university undergraduates agreed that expressing pent up anger is a good way of tamping down aggression. This belief dates back at least to Aristotle who observed that viewing tragic plays affords the opportunity for catharsis a cleansing of anger and other negative emotions.

"Popular media also assure us that anger is a monster we must tame by 'letting off steam', 'blowing our top', and 'getting things off our chest.' [That] advice echoes the counsel of many self-help authors. One suggested that rather than 'holding in poisonous anger' it is better to 'punch a pillow or a punching bag. And while you do it yell and curse and moan and holler.' Some popular therapies encourage clients to scream, hit pillows, or throw balls against walls when they get angry. Practitioners of Arthur Janovs 'primal therapy' popularly called primal scream therapy believe that psychologically disturbed adults must bellow at the top of their lungs or somehow otherwise release the emotional pain stemming either from the trauma of birth or from childhood neglect or suffering.

The Great Day of His Wrath, c. 1853

"Yet more than 40 years of research reveals that expressing anger actually amplifies aggression. In one study, people who pounded nails after someone insulted them became more critical of that person than did their counterparts who did not pound nails. Other research shows that playing aggressive sports, such as football, actually boosts self-reported hostility. And a review of 35 studies by psychologist Craig Anderson of Iowa State University and psychologist Brad Bushman of the University of Michigan at Ann Arbor suggests that playing violent video games such as Manhunt in which participants rate assassinations on a five-point scale heightens aggression in the laboratory and in everyday social situations.

"Psychologist Jill Littrell of Georgia State University concludes from a published review of the literature that expressing anger is helpful only when accompanied by constructive problem solving or communication designed to reduce frustration or address the immediate source of the anger. So if we are upset with our partner for repeatedly ignoring our feelings shouting at him or her is unlikely to make us feel better let alone improve the situation. But calmly and assertively expressing our resentment ('I realize you probably aren't being insensitive on purpose, but when you act that way I don't feel close to you') can often take the sting out of anger.

"Why is this myth so popular? People probably attribute the fact that they feel better after expressing anger to catharsis rather than to the anger subsiding on its own which it almost always does. Odds are they would have felt better if they had merely waited out their anger."


Busting Big Myths in Popular Psychology


Lilienfeld, Lynn, Ruscio, & Beyerstein


Scientific American - Mind


March/April 2010


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