By ERICA GOODE
"You know what I
do when I'm angry? I hit a pillow. Try that," suggests the psychiatrist,
played by Billy Crystal, to his New York gangster client (Robert De Niro) in
the Warner Brothers movie "Analyze This." But it is bad advice,
according to new research by social psychologists.
Though pop psychology books and articles perpetuate the notion that "getting your anger out" is cathartic and can help dissipate hostility, the researchers have found just the opposite: Venting anger on inanimate objects -- punching a pillow or hitting a punching bag, for example -- increases rather than decreases aggressive behavior.
Even more disturbing, the researchers found, books and articles that recommend "catharsis" as a good method of dealing with anger actually may foster aggression by giving people permission to relax their self-control.
In the studies, which appear in the March issue of The Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, angry subjects who hit a punching bag were later more aggressive in blasting their rivals in a competitive task with loud, unpleasant noises than subjects who did not hit a punching bag.
But aggression also increased when the subjects, who were all undergraduates enrolled in introductory psychology courses, first read a bogus article describing research purportedly showing that hitting an inanimate object was "an effective way of venting anger."
In one study, participants who read the article were more eager to hit the punching bag than subjects who read a different article debunking the benefits of catharsis. In a subsequent study, participants who read the pro-catharsis article and then hit the punching bag were more aggressive toward partners in the competitive task.
Dr. Brad J. Bushman, an associate professor of psychology at Iowa State University and the lead author of the studies, said he suspected that the subjects, led to believe catharsis worked, kept trying to relieve anger, even after it became clear that the punching bag was not doing the job. "They keep trying to get this emotional release, but it never happens," he said.
To make the subjects angry, the researchers asked them to write one-paragraph essays on abortion, and informed them that the essays would be critiqued by other study participants.
Half the subjects received negative critiques, consisting of low ratings on organization, originality, style, clarity, persuasiveness and overall quality, along with a handwritten comment saying, "This is one of the worst essays I have read!" The others received positive critiques, including the comment, "No suggestions, great essay!"
The idea that catharsis is the best way to handle anger gained wide currency as part of Sigmund Freud's hydraulic model of sexual and aggressive drives. The theory holds that when angry feelings are repressed, pressure builds up. If the pressure is not released, the logic goes, psychological or physical problems can result. Many self-help books advocate a cathartic approach to anger management. One, the researchers wrote, "recommended that angry people twist a towel, punch a pillow, wallop a punching bag, hit a couch with a plastic baseball bat, throw rocks or break glass to reduce pent-up anger."
Over the past three decades, however, psychologists have tested the catharsis theory and found virtually no evidence for it. "Catharsis has enjoyed a run of support in the popular media that far outstrips its support in the research literature," Dr. Bushman and his colleagues wrote.