emotional reaction (unless they were depressed--see chapter 6). However, in
later studies, where the aggressive partner's behavior (# of shocks) could be
modified by being friendly to him or by being self-punitive, both of these
actions yielded a "cathartic-like" emotional relief without anger being
released. So, there seems to be a variety of ways we can learn to handle our
anger, including learning various means of controlling the aggressor.
Again, being "friendly" to someone who has hurt you and shocking
yourself hardly seem to be the same kind of emotionally draining experience
as a thorough catharsis or getting revenge (see next section).
Being aggressive and mean towards someone who has angered us does
make us feel better but also makes us more inclined to hurt them even more
later. Why is this? Probably because being hostile is easier the second time
and still easier the 100th time; you've overcome your inhibitions against
aggression; you've learned about aggression and its payoffs. But there are
other reasons. Aronson (1984) points out that our negative feelings increase
towards another person or group as we hurt them. The snowball effect
between thoughts and actions goes like this: "We are hurting them. We are
decent people. Therefore, they must be bad." So we put them down more,
justifying hurting them more, leading to more negative thoughts about them,
etc. This mental put down-behavioral violence cycle occurs in abuse and in
prejudice, which we will consider in more detail later.
My conclusions about catharsis
Is catharsis helpful or harmful? The problem is, as I see it, that catharsis
can mean many things. Several scientists (Aronson, 1984; Lewis & Bucher,
1992; Bandura, 1973; Tavris, 1984) have sloppily accepted many diverse
acts as being "catharsis" and prematurely concluded that all kinds of catharsis
are ineffective or harmful. What the behaviorists call catharsis (almost any
expression or even observation of emotion) is hardly therapeutic catharsis.
For instance, Bushman (2002) suggests that catharsis (or venting) is
something like when he had a group of college students hit a punching bag
while thinking about another student who had harshly critiqued their essay.
When the study found that venting increased that groups anger, the
experimenter concluded that catharsis builds anger, not reduces it. Freud
would see it differently. In a similar distorted way, Tavris clearly equates a
dirty, abusive, vicious marital fight with catharsis. Catharsis is not just an
explosion of emotions. Unfortunately, this equation is naive and implies that
therapists using catharsis might even advocate abusive violence.
What is catharsis in therapy? Well, most Freudians would say it was the
expression of repressed (unconsciously held back) feelings that are causing
problems. Sometimes the initial traumatic situation (often from childhood) is
vividly relived, called an abreaction. Most non-Freudian psychotherapists
would consider catharsis to be the intense expression (in therapy or alone) of
conscious or unconscious emotions for the specific purpose of feeling better,
gaining insight, and reducing the unwanted emotion. It doesn't involve
watching a model of aggression; it never involves actually hurting someone.