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It's Better to Express Anger to Others than to Hold It in

Patrick Henry Sherrill has the dubious distinction of inspiring the term "going postal"—for committing one of the worst mass murders in American history. On August 20, 1986, Sherrill, enraged at the prospect of being fired from his job as a postal worker, fired away with two guns that he had hidden in his mail pouch, killing 14 employees and wounding 6 others before taking his own life at the Edmond, Oklahoma, Post Office.

Many people now use the term "going postal" to describe a person becoming uncontrollably angry and violent. "Road rage," a slang term referring to eruptions of anger on roadways, can likewise be deadly. On April 16, 2007, after flashing his headlights and tailgating Kevin Norman, Jason Reynolds cut in front of Norman and slammed on his brakes. When Norman swerved to avoid a collision, his vehicle rolled across the median, landed atop another vehicle, and killed both Norman and the other driver.

Could Sherrill and Reynolds have averted these lethal outbursts if they had vented their pent-up emotions at home—by, say, punching a pillow or using a plastic bat to swat away their anger? If you're like most people, you believe that releasing anger is healthier than keeping it bottled up. Indeed in one survey, fully 66 percent of undergraduates agreed that expressing pent-up anger is an effective means of reducing one's risk for aggression. This belief dates back more than 2,000 years to the Greek philosopher Aristotle. In his classic Poetics, Aristotle observed that viewing tragic plays provides the opportunity for catharsis (derived from the Greek word katharsis)—a purging of anger and other negative emotions that provides a satisfying psychological cleansing experience.

Sigmund Freud, an influential proponent of catharsis, believed that repressed fury could build up and fester, much like steam in a pressure cooker, to the point that it caused psychological conditions like hysteria or trip-wired aggression. The key to therapy and rosy mental health, said Freud and his followers, is to dampen the pressure of negative feelings by talking about them and releasing them in a controlled manner in and out of treatment. The Marvel comic book and movie character, "The Hulk," is a metaphor for what happens when we fail to control the rage lurking at the fringes of consciousness. When mild-mannered Bruce Banner lets too much anger build up, or when he is provoked, he morphs into his rampaging alter-ego, the Hulk.

Anger, popular psychology teaches us, is a monster we must tame. A host of films stoke the idea that we can do so by "letting off steam," "blowing our top," "getting things off our chest," and "getting it out of our system." In Analyze This, for example, a psychiatrist (played by Billy Crystal) advises a New York Gangster (played by Robert De Niro) to hit a pillow whenever he's angry. In Network (1976), an angry news anchor (played by Peter Finch) implores irate viewers, outraged by the high price of oil, the plummeting economy, and the country being on war footing, to release their frustrations by opening their windows and hollering, "I'm mad as hell and I'm not going to take it anymore." In response to his urgings, millions of Americans do just that.

And it's not just the movies. Many self-help books also counsel venting as a method for anger management.  Self-help author John Lee, for instance, suggests that rather than "holding in poisonous anger," it's better to "punch a pillow or a punching bag. And while you do it, yell and curse, and moan and holler. Punch with all the frenzy you can. If you are angry with a particular person, imagine his or her face on the pillow or punching bag, and vent your rage physically and verbally."  Similarly, George Bach and Herb Goldberg have recommended an exercise dubbed "The Vesuvius," named after the Italian volcano that caused the destruction of Pompeii in A.D. 79. With this exercise, "individuals can vent their pent-up frustrations, resentments, hurts, hostilities, and rage in a full-throated, screaming outburst."

Even some brands of psychotherapy incorporate such techniques to deal with anger—encouraging  clients to scream, hit pillows, or throw balls against walls when they become angry. Proponents of "primal therapy," often informally called "primal scream therapy," believe that psychologically troubled adults must release the emotional pain produced by infant and childhood trauma by discharging this pain, often by screaming at the top of their lungs. Some cities, including Atlanta, Georgia, still have primal therapy centers.
Some cathartic therapeutic techniques are arguably even more bizarre. People in the town of Castejon, Spain, now practice "Destructotherapy" to relieve office stress: Men and women destroy junked cars and household items with sledgehammers to the beat of a rock band playing in the background. This "therapy" may have been inspired by the film Office Space, in which angry workers who hate their jobs and their boss take an copying machine to a field and beat it mercilessly with a baseball bat.

These shenanigans aside, research suggests that the catharsis hypothesis is false. For more than 40 years, studies have revealed that encouraging the expression of anger directly toward another person or indirectly (such as toward an object) actually turns up the heat on aggression. In one of the earliest studies, people who pounded nails after someone insulted them were more, rather than less, critical of that person afterward. Moreover, playing aggressive sports like football, which are presumed to promote catharsis, boosts aggression. And playing violent video games like Manhunt, in which bloody assassinations are rated on a 5-point scale, is associated with increased aggression in the laboratory and everyday life.

So getting angry doesn't "let off steam." It merely fans the flames of our anger. Research suggests that expressing anger is helpful only when it's accompanied by constructive problem-solving designed to address the source of the anger. So if we're upset at our partner for repeatedly showing up late for dates, yelling at him or her is unlikely to make us feel better, let alone improve the situation. But calmly and assertively expressing one's resentment ("I realize you probably aren't doing this on purpose, but when you show up late it hurts my feelings") can often go a long way toward resolving conflict.

The media may increase the likelihood that people will express anger: People may engage in aggressive acts because they believe they'll feel better afterward. Brad Bushman and his colleagues provided participants with bogus newspaper stories claiming that acting aggressively is a good way to reduce
anger, and then gave them critical comments on an essay they wrote on abortion ("This is one of the worst essays I have ever read!"). Contrary to the catharsis hypothesis, people who read the pro-catharsis story—which claimed that catharsis is a good way to relax and reduce anger —and then hit a punching bag became more aggressive toward the person who insulted them than did people who read an anti-catharsis newspaper story and hit a punching bag.

Why is the myth of catharsis still popular despite compelling evidence that anger feeds aggression? Because people sometimes feel better for a short time after they blow off steam, it may reinforce the belief that catharsis works. Also, people often mistakenly attribute the fact that they feel better after they express anger to catharsis, rather than to the fact that anger usually subsides on its own after a while. As Jeffrey Lohr and his colleagues observed, this is an example of the post hoc, ergo propter hoc ("after this, therefore because of this") fallacy--the error of assuming that because one thing comes before another, it must cause it. We agree with Carol Tavris that "It is time to put a bullet, once and for all, through the heart of the catharsis hypothesis." But after we pull the trigger, will we feel better—or worse—than before we fired the shot?

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From 50 Great Myths of Popular Psychology: Shattering Widespread Misconceptions about Human Behavior by Scott O. Lilienfeld, Steven Jay Lynn, John Ruscio, and Barry L. Beyerstein. Copyright © 2010 by Scott O. Lilienfeld, Steven Jay Lynn, John Ruscio, and Barry L. Beyerstein.  This material is reproduced with permission of John Wiley & Sons, Inc.

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