Thursday, March 15, 2007

Venting Anger Is Not A Solution

It can be quite interesting how the findings of science differ from commonsense. But what, after all, is commonsense? Isn’t much of commonsense, as Einstein said, merely those prejudices we develop before we reach the age of 18? If so, why shouldn’t we expect many – perhaps even most – of those prejudices to be overturned by the rigorous methods and scrutiny of science?

A case in point is the commonsense notion that we can rid ourselves of any anger we feel by “venting” it – as if we were steam engines in need of letting off our excess steam. Jeffrey M. Lohr and his team decided to check the truth of that notion by wading through all the scientific research on anger and anger management that’s been done over the previous 50 or so years. What they found might surprise you:

While it is a common assumption that an angry person needs to blow off steam or risk going through the roof, research in psychology shows just the opposite. According to University of Arkansas psychologist Jeffrey M. Lohr, research has consistently showed that venting anger is at best ineffective and in some cases is even harmful.

“In study after study, the conclusion was the same: Expressing anger does not reduce aggressive tendencies and likely makes it worse,” Lohr and colleagues wrote.

“If venting really does get anger ‘out of your system,’ then venting should result in a reduction of both anger and aggression. Unfortunately for catharsis theory, the results showed precisely the opposite effect,” Lohr and colleagues wrote.

In study after study, subjects who vented anger against inanimate objects, who vented directly against the person who induced their anger, who vented hostility by playing football or who vented verbally about an employer – all showed more resentment than those who had not vented. In some experiments, venting led to aggression against innocent bystanders. Even those who firmly believed in the value of venting ended up more hostile and aggressive after thumping pillows or engaging in other expressions of anger.

“What people fail to realize is that the anger would have dissipated had they not vented. Moreover, it would have dissipated more quickly had they not vented and tried to control their anger instead,” the researchers wrote.

In contrast to the venting experiments, other studies have shown that anger dissipates faster when people take deep breaths, relax or take a time out. Any action that “makes it impossible to sustain the angry state” can help defuse anger.
So, there you have it. The science on this issue seems pretty conclusive: It's simply not a good idea to vent anger if you want to be rid of it. But will the science on this change people's attitudes towards venting, or will people still believe the commonsense thing to do is to vent?

I think it will take considerable time for the notion that venting is not good to catch on. After all, it is not only sanctified as commonsense that venting is good for you, but it is also taught by some "therapists" that you should vent your anger. Primal scream, anyone?

The full article from which the quotes above were taken is here.


Brendan said...

This certainly lines up with my experience as well as the research. Since "venting" becomes an excuse for expressing anger at every little thing that bothers my ego, it easily becomes a habit to become disrespectful to others and unmindful of their perspectives.

Paul said...

I think you've nailed one of the problems with anger: It seems to prevent us from deeply seeing into another person's point of view or perspective. In turn, that further isolates us from others.

Even when our anger is at some thing, rather than at another person, anger blinds us. It is very hard to see the flower for what it is if you're angry at the hayfever it's caused you.

Why is anger so limiting? Is it not because it focuses only on the way something threatens us, and puts aside all else about the thing?

Thank you for an interesting comment!