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Catharsis and Aggression in Social Psychology: Definition & Examples

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  • 0:06 What Is Catharsis
  • 1:00 Catharsis and Aggression
  • 2:45 Why Doesn't It Work?
  • 5:00 Lesson Summary
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Lesson Transcript
Instructor: Natalie Boyd

Natalie is a teacher and holds an MA in English Education and is in progress on her PhD in psychology.

You might think that venting when you're angry helps you blow off steam. But, does aggression really lead to catharsis, or just to more aggression? In this lesson, we'll look at the link between catharsis and aggression, including a famous study on the effects of violence on aggressive feelings.

What is Catharsis?

Joyce hates her boss. He is rude and arrogant and often blames Joyce for mistakes that he makes. She dreads having to see him every morning. But, she can't quit her job; she needs to pay rent and there's a great new pair of shoes she's been eyeing. In short, she needs the paycheck.

To blow off steam, Joyce often vents to her coworker Karl. He listens to Joyce and lets her complain about their boss. He even sometimes joins in on the venting and tells his own horror story of what a pain their boss is. They like to imagine scenarios where they get revenge on their boss by putting glue in his coffee or dousing his desk with glitter.

Dreaming about aggression is more likely to make a person aggressive.
Aggression Dreaming

Karl and Joyce both believe that they need to vent to each other in order to get through the day; they are getting things off their chest, they think. That's the healthy thing to do. Catharsis is when we get rid of negative emotions by engaging in something like art or venting.

Catharsis and Aggression

According to some people, watching aggression or dreaming about doing something aggressive helps relieve emotional pressure and provides catharsis. Joyce and Karl are venting and fantasizing about revenge on their boss in order to find that catharsis.

But, does catharsis work? Does fantasizing about aggression or watching other people be aggressive actually help purge feelings of aggression and make people less violent and hostile?

Some psychologists believe in catharsis, but most studies have shown that watching or dreaming about aggression actually increases, not decreases, violence. According to many studies, if Joyce watches a movie about a woman who ties up her boss and throws him in the trunk of her car, she's more likely to feel and act more aggressive towards her boss, not less.

What if the victim of aggression is the person who caused the bad feelings? For example, what if Joyce tells off her boss in order to rid herself of the anger she feels towards him? Will she feel a cathartic release?

One famous study done in the 1970s sought to answer just that question. In the study, a confederate, or researcher pretending to be a participant, acted rudely to anger the actual participants. Afterwards, the participants were given tasks to do with the confederate. Half of the subjects were given the opportunity to administer an electrical shock to the confederate on the first task, and all of the subjects were given that opportunity on the second task.

If catharsis worked, the participants who shocked the confederate on the first task should show less aggression when given the opportunity in the second task. After all, they will have felt the catharsis during the first shock. But, the researchers found that those who shocked the confederate on the first task were actually more aggressive on the second task, not less.

Why Doesn't It Work?

In other words, aggression breeds aggression. If Joyce tells her boss off, she's likely to feel more hostile, not less, towards him afterwards.

Joyce might not feel less aggressive after she tells her boss off, but she'll sure feel good! Engaging in aggression floods our bodies with adrenaline, which makes our hearts beat fast and makes us feel strong. This good feeling following aggression might be why people believe in catharsis.

However, even though venting hostility makes us feel better, it does not reduce our hostility. So, after we've acted aggressively, we still have the feelings of anger that led us to be aggressive in the first place, so catharsis doesn't work.

Venting aggression decreases barriers against further hostility.
Venting Aggression

There are two reasons that might explain why aggression leads to more aggression. First, it reduces the barriers against further aggression. If Joyce tells off her boss and doesn't get fired, she realizes that she can get away with telling him off. Not only that, but she's got that feel-good adrenaline running through her body, so she's more likely to engage in aggressive behavior in the future.

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