Monday, May 12, 2008

The Mythological Effects of Venting

Over the last several years large-scale, organized pillow fights have been breaking out in cities around the globe - most notably those on World Pillow Fight Day. These events are obviously held in the spirit of good fun, but what about the commonly-held belief that venting aggression or other emotions brings about a sort of catharsis from such emotions? Is venting a healthy response to festering emotions?

In his book, The Science of Happiness, Stefan Klein doesn't seem to think so. Klein argues that emotion reactions establish themselves in the brain using the Hebbian Learning Rule.

Even if we're feeling huge anger or fear, it's to our advantage to bring our emotions under control. When we [do this], there's a two-fold effect on the brain. For one, we're less likely to react negatively to start with, because the connection between the stimulus and the emotional response to it is weakened. Second, we strengthen the ability to restrain such emotions, should they be released after all. ... Conscious control of the emotions has to be practiced. (p. 59)

This study, by Brad J. Bushman also seems to indicate that Catharsis theory really has no empirical foundation. Three groups were used to measure various responses to anger: Rumination (subjects spent time focusing on the person who made them angry), Distraction (subjects spent time distracting themselves from the person who made them angry), and the Control group (subjects waited in silence, doing nothing). Subjects in each group were also allowed to punch a punching bag for as long as they liked (venting).

They found that subjects who ruminated on the object of their anger actually showed increased levels of anger, while those who were distracted from the object of their anger, showed a decrease in anger. Also interesting is that those who were distracted from the object of their anger, but allowed to punch a punching bag while focusing on becoming physically fit, (distraction with venting) also showed an increase of anger. This seems to indicate that the mere act of aggressive behavior (punching the punching bag) increases anger without respect to the mental focus of the subject (be it on the object of anger or simply the goal of becoming physically fit).


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