Every so often, when I tell someone that I have a professional background in psychological research, they’ll immediately start talking to me about Sigmund Freud.
And inevitably I’ll end up conveying the same information: Freud’s a famous guy, and a lot of people’s “picture” of psychology — but he wasn’t a scientist. He formed a lot of hypotheses, that’s for sure. But he didn’t test them properly. Freud was certainly a counselor, but it was back before such things were actually regulated. And he certainly wasn’t a scientist. Freud was more of a philosopher.
That said, some of Freud’s hypotheses actually did turn out to be on target years later when they were able to be properly empirically tested.
Most notably, Freud’s concept of the unconscious mind held true, the idea that more is going on with us mentally than we necessarily consciously register. That general phenomenon has been found over and over again in psychological science. People have way more going on in their minds than they realize. And they’ll frequently predict that they’ll react one way to a certain situation, but when placed in that exact situation, they will act differently.
But there are other ideas that Freud either came up with or popularized that turned out to be quite false when they were empirically studied.
One of those was the catharsis theory of anger.
Venting Feels Good Short Term But Trains You to Be More Aggressive Long Term
The catharsis theory is the idea that we need to vent our anger, or else it will eat us alive. If you’re angry at someone, catharsis theory states that the proper response is to post an angry rant, vent to a friend about how upset you are, or scream into pillow or punch a punching bag.
Catharsis theory states that when it comes to anger, you should “let it out.” Otherwise, you’ll repress your anger and be a seething rage bag with no outlet. The theory states that letting it out is healthy and that it allows you to feel less anger over time.
This idea is very culturally popular. But in fact, there’s no evidence to support it.
And in fact, there’s an entire body of research that directly refutes it. Geen and Quanty rejected catharsis theory as early as 1977, providing a comprehensive overview of the limitations and problems with it that prior research had uncovered up until that point.
However, public belief in the theory persisted, despite all the evidence to the contrary. People didn’t want to believe it wasn’t true. And part of this is because venting makes you feel better in the short term, so it must be good for you, right?
Sadly, what feels good in the short term isn’t always good for your emotional health long term. Starting in the 90s, Bushman went on to work more extensively in this particular area, later finding that while a cathartic response to anger certainly makes you feel really good in the short term, it actually leads to more aggressive behavior in the future, not less.
Rather than serving as a healthy outlet, a way to diminish anger long term, angrily lashing out (even towards a safe target) reinforces those behavior patterns. You can become neurochemically addicted to angry outbursts. And in turn, you become angrier and angrier over time and more prone to aggressive behaviors.
Bushman would later go on to find that the best response to unwanted anger isn’t venting (which is a form of rumination) but distraction. Especially distracting yourself with activities that have absolutely nothing to do with what angered you in the first place. Cooling down first rather than expressing that anger when it’s hot.
Pay Attention to Your Anger, But Don’t Let It Consume You
Cooling down first before you address your anger isn’t the same thing as not dealing with it at all. As many have noted (Tavris, for example), anger isn’t necessarily a destructive emotion. Anger is part of our emotional landscape because it’s a response to perceived unfairness.
When we get angry, it’s because we think that something isn’t the way that it should be. And that’s valuable information, knowing that we want something to change. That can be really helpful.
Unfortunately, when left unchecked, the way we respond when we’re cognitively heated by that anger can actually make it harder to achieve our goals. Like all states of heightened emotional arousal, anger can dramatically impair our ability to problem-solve the complex social situations we often find ourselves in.
What would have worked great for early humans is often a complete failure when applied to modern life. An adrenaline rush might help us bum rush and fight a predator trying to eat us, but when it comes to problem-solving in complex social situations, it’s the complete opposite. Yerkes-Dodson famously found that a little stress is fine but that too much stress makes us terribly unproductive and ineffective (we typically narrow our field down to one or two simple solutions, ignoring the rest of the entire array of possibilities, where the optimal course of action may very well lie). It’s difficult to do anything well if you’re too keyed up.
So maybe there’s some kind of problem here that needs to be addressed. But the heat of your anger is likely to make it harder, not easier, to find an effective solution.
And getting addicted to hot cognition is going to further work against that.
Changing Often Involves Admitting You’re Wrong First, and That’s Tough
Inevitably whenever I talk about the catharsis hypothesis, I will get a message or two from readers letting me know why catharsis works in their own case. Assuring me that they’re not getting addicted to anger, that they’ve found some kind of unique workaround that makes the coping mechanism healthy. That they know what they’re doing.
And you know, you do you. I’m not the boss of you. It’s also not like this isn’t something I haven’t myself personally done. Because catharsis is pushed by many in pop culture as the “healthy” way of managing these emotions, I spent most of my life laboring under the assumption that it was best to vent and let one’s anger out. I did plenty of venting and angry rumination myself.
But when I learned about the research that had been done into this area and the findings, it gave me profound pause.
It was humbling. Because changing often involves admitting you’re wrong first. And that can be tough.
So I felt guilty for a hot second. But then I consciously began to attempt to rework those patterns and try reacting in another way.
Does this mean that I never complain about other people negatively? No. I do still go over negative situations with trusted confidants. But I’m particularly unlikely to do it while I’m cognitively hot. When I’m super upset.
At the point I reach out to friends, or begin to open up to my private journal (or even write about something publicly in a blog or a book), I’ve typically cooled down a bit first. Taken the edge off things.
Usually I do this by going for a walk, taking a shower, or having a one-woman dance party to music I really like.
And I’ve personally really loved the changes to my emotional landscape. I’ve found I’m far less prone to angry outbursts than I was before. I find it easier to take a step back and calm myself down. And that I’m just… well, more chill.
But you do you. If this isn’t something that seems like you can implement (for whatever reason), whether that’s not right now or ever, I’m not here to judge you.
I’m just letting you know more information so you can make a more informed decision.
This post is part of an ongoing Poly Land feature called Psyched for the Weekend, in which I geek out with brief takes about some of my favorite psychological studies and concepts. For the entire series, please see this link.