Catharsis and the Release of Aggressive Energy
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To use an analogy, a human being and a volcano may have something in common. Much like the pressure that builds within a volcano, if a human being builds up enough pressure and tension without a way to release it, they will both inevitably erupt. Therefore it is important for both humans and volcanoes to occasionally blow off some steam. This is the idea behind the theory of catharsis; the release of negative energy or tension.
The study of this topic has primarily focused on the area of human aggression. The idea is that people who do not regularly release their aggressive energy may instead, internalize it. This type of person, called an over-controlled aggressor, allows negative energy to build inside until they cannot take anymore and suddenly lash out viciously. Interestingly enough, there is a belief that once this aggressive episode has passed, this type of person may to return to a passive state and the process restarts.
While research has shown that acting out aggressively can actually help to reduce tension, researchers are still trying to determine its psychological and physiological effects on the person engaging in such behavior. In one study, the blood pressure of the subjects was monitored as they were harassed while trying to complete a pre-specified task they had been given. The results showed that aggression did indeed help reduce tension at a physiological level. Subjects who retaliated against the experimenter in a physical or verbal manner showed a marked decrease in blood pressure. Subjects who only fantasized about retaliation or did not retaliate at all, showed little to no decrease, respectively.
While this shows that releasing aggressive energy or catharsis may alleviate physiological effects of tension, does it actually diminish the likelihood of future aggression? And what are the psychological effects of this type of release? According to researchers the theory of catharsis rests upon several factors:
Aggression will reduce later aggression only if it’s in response to an instigation (e.g., Bramel, Taub, & Blum, 1968; Doob, 1970; Konecni, 1975), is directed at the instigator and is comparable to the instigation ( e.g., Berkowitz & Alioto, 1973; Ebbesen, Duncan, & Konecni, 1975; Goldstein & Arms, 1971; Goranson, 1970; Mallick & McCandless, 1966).These findings support the view that the release of aggressive energy or catharsis may in fact make someone less inclined engage in future aggressive behavior, however, only under certain strict conditions.
While some research supports the idea of catharsis, there are many other findings that weigh against it. What may relieve tension and aggression in one person may actually increase these feelings in another person. Some studies have reported results in direct contradiction to the theory of catharsis. One such study indicated that aggression can actually lead to increased risk of future aggression (Geen et al., 1975). It has even been found that someone carrying out an aggressive act on your behalf can lead to a reduction in aggression (E.J. Murray, 1985). Therefore, one may be inclined to believe that human beings may simply have a propensity toward aggression when they feel wronged. Some people choose to deal with this pent up aggression in a constructive way while others do not.