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Apr. 22 2010 - 2:34 pm | 355 views | 0 recommendations | 4 comments

The ignorant and the furious: video and catharsis

The Greek philosopher Aristotle had many original and enduring ideas, but he didn’t get everything right. One idea that’s been pretty much debunked by modern psychology is catharsis. Catharsis is the notion that we can purge our negative emotions by acting them out or witnessing them in our arts and entertainment—and that such purging is a healthy thing to do. Not true. Indeed there is evidence that indulging our anger and aggression can increase—not decrease—those destructive emotions.

Even so, a lot of people still believe in catharsis. They believe that pummeling punching bags and watching Fight Club and cursing at the universe is cleansing. Scientists wonder if this unshakeable belief—even if it’s misguided—might be shaping behavior in important ways. A team of psychological scientists at the University of Michigan’s Institute for Social Research decided recently to explore this idea in a very modern domain: the world of video games.

Brad Bushman and Jodi Whitaker wondered if distorted beliefs about catharsis might be playing a role in the popularity of violent video games. Specifically, they wanted to see if believing in catharsis might influence angry people to vent their anger by playing these unsavory games. To test this, they recruited a large group of college students and instructed them to read two different newspaper articles on the science behind catharsis. Both articles were bogus, but some volunteers read an article extolling the value of catharsis, while others read an article refuting the concept. The purpose was to spark either belief or disbelief about the idea of catharsis.

Then the scientists used a well-known lab technique to anger only some of the volunteers. After writing an essay about an incident in their lives that had made them angry, these students received a cruel and insulting handwritten comment from another student: “This is one of the worst essays I’ve read!” The other students received lavish praise for their essays.

So at this point, half the volunteers believed in catharsis and the other half did not. And half of each group—believers and nonbelievers—was steaming with resentment. The next step was to give all the volunteers a choice of fictional video games, some violent and some not. The students rated how much they wanted to play each game, and they also named the actual commercial video games they preferred to play at home.

The results were unambiguous. As reported on-line this week in the journal Psychological Science, the fuming volunteers were much more likely to opt for the violent video games—but only if they believed in catharsis as a valid tool for channeling rage. Interestingly, the angry volunteers who did not believe in catharsis were the least likely to pick the violent games—even less likely, that is, than the upbeat volunteers.

The psychologists reran this experiment, but instead of using the fake science articles to prime beliefs, they measure the volunteers’ natural tendencies to vent their angry feelings. They got identical results. It appears that belief in catharsis increased the appeal of violent games in angry people.

Do these findings help explain why people are attracted to violent entertainment in general—and violent video games in particular? It’s not entirely clear, but it’s at least possible that the interplay of anger and belief plays a part. A worthwhile public health strategy might disabuse people of the belief that these games are a healthy outlet for life’s inevitable frustrations. One volunteer’s statement, which the scientists include in their report, captures this dynamic in a telling and disturbing way: “How could I squelch the urge to set my manager on fire,” the student asked, “if I couldn’t set people on fire in video games?”


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  1. collapse expand

    Mr. Herbert,

    You have misread Aristotle. He was not speaking of violent or negative emotions being purged by watching violence. He wrote in Poetics “In real life men are sometimes too much addicted to pity or fear, sometimes too little; tragedy brings them back to a virtuous and happy mean.” He does not say that men (i.e. people) would be free of fear or pity after watching a play full tragedy only that they would purged of either an *excessive* or a *deficiency* of negative emotions and that after the purging, they would have the proper balance of emotions. He likened it the evacuation of menstrual fluids. Nor did he limit it negative emissions. Comedy purged people of excessive positive emotions, it released pent-up energies. Aristotle was discussing theater and literature and was responding to Plato’s negative views of both, that they excited emotional excesses in the audience.

    Further, and perhaps more to the point, Aristotle did not say that every poem, book, or play was cathartic, only good ones were. His point was that good literature was cathartic, not all literature. Poorly constructed literature failed to achieve catharsis, which is why it is bad. Aristotle did not believe the simple experiencing of negative emotions had any cathartic effect. He distinguishes between the cathartic effect of generating “fear and pity” in audience versus what “merely shocks” the audience and has no such effect.

    You are correct that naïve and simplistic understandings of Aristotle’s theory of catharsis are wrongly applied to video games. I do know if Aristotle would have considered video games as literature, but if had, he would have said that they were bad literature exactly because they were not cathartic.

  2. collapse expand

    What serendipity! I’m writing a term paper right now on the state of videogame journalism, and, while you’re certainly not a “videogame critic,” per say, this is the kind of criticism the industry is sorely in need of: abstract cultural commentary.

    On topic, now: When was catharsis, as a theory, disproved? This is the first I’ve heard of it, and it’s quite shocking, considering the number of artists who tout their experiences as “cathartic.” Is this revelation something that’s generally confined to the professional psychological community? Or I am just woefully uninformed?

    • collapse expand

      Hello richardberger,

      No, you are not misinformed, woefully or otherwise. Some people have mangled Aristotle’s theory and it is that charactured version that has been disproven. It is thought by some that the theory catharsis is that if a person sees emotionally negative things or even acts them out, he or she would be purged of those emotions. However this is not what Aristotle wrote in Poetics.

      Rather, writing of tragedy in Poetics, Aristotle thought that *well written* tragedy intensified the emotions within the audience, and at the end, with the completion of the play, those emotions were released. *Poorly written* tragedy did have this effect he thought. The poorer writer substituted tragedy with shock. Simply shocking the senses of the audience, simply seeing or hearing emotionally negative events, did have the positive, cathartic effect that well written tragedy did.

      For Aristotle, tragedy was where fear and pity come together. As he himself wrote:

      “Fear and pity may be aroused by spectacular means; but they may also result from the inner structure of the piece, which is the better way, and indicates a superior poet. For the plot ought to be so constructed that, even without the aid of the eye, he who hears the tale told will thrill with horror and melt to pity at what takes place. This is the impression we should receive from hearing the story of the Oedipus.”

      Aristotle contrasts the work of the superior poet who arouses the emotions of his audience through the tragedy of events as driven through the inner workings of the plot with the inferior poet who simply uses “spectacle” which assaults the senses. He wrote:

      “But to produce this effect by the mere spectacle is a less artistic method, and dependent on extraneous aids. Those who employ spectacular means to create a sense not of the terrible but only of the monstrous, are strangers to the purpose of tragedy; for we must not demand of tragedy any and every kind of pleasure, but only that which is proper to it. And since the pleasure which the poet should afford is that which comes from pity and fear through imitation, it is evident that this quality must be impressed upon the incidents.”

      It is superior writing, poetry, theater, and perhaps even a video game that produces catharsis. The simple stimulation of the senses with images of violence and death, spectacle, is not cathartic. Not all art is cathartic, only good art.

      Video games are no different. If a video game can arouse emotions and then cause their release, then it is cathartic, and even art. If a video game merely shocks and overwhelms the senses, it is not cathartic.

      It is the childish simplification of Artistole that is to be ignored and understood to be disproven. Aristotle’s theory of catharsis and art has not survived two millenia of criticism for nothing.

      In response to another comment. See in context »
  3. collapse expand

    This was an interesting read, however I have some comments/questions.. maybe someone can help me out.

    The notion of catharsis is mentioned many times in clinical psychology classes. The aim of some varieties of psychotherapies is for catharsis to occur in a patient. This implies the release of bottled up emotion, a realization of the problem that they were repressing or unready to confront. Basically, an expression of pent up emotion.

    I don’t believe this article says the release of emotion is unhealthy, simply that is unhealthy to think that video games are a proper way to do it. What *is* the proper way to do it then? In a psychologist office? As a confession of pent up emotions to a loved one.. a stranger..? For people to just deal with it?

    I think that — or maybe it’s just me, telling someone to just deal with it would be quite useless unless they have the capacity to be able to realize their anger is either over reacting, irrational, or simply can be dealt with internally. However, in some instances where repressed anger turns into psychological issues that manifest themselves behaviorally in a person’s life..I think we would all agree that this will not end well for the individual.

    So then, for those who do not want to see a psychologist, or talk to a friend.. especially men, I don’t mean to stereotype or be sexist here but after plenty of sociology classes (including sociology of gender), I think that it is safe to say that our society has rigid gender roles that we are expected to follow because we are simply brought up that way. For men, it is a lot more acceptable to act out their anger on something and get violent rather sit down and talk about their feelings.

    When a person is angry, and seeing a psychologist is not an option, and talking it out is simply not something they feel comfortable doing.. what would be the proper way to alleviate this anger?

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    I've been a Washington, DC-based science writer for many years, specializing in psychology and human behavior. I currently write a blog for the Association for Psychological Science called "We're Only Human," and am also a regular contributor to Newsweek.com and Scientific American Mind. Crown will be publishing my book, On Second Thought: Outsmarting Your Mind's Hard-Wired Habits, in September. I am an old-school journalist embracing the world of new media. I'm on Facebook and Twitter. I believe that every news story--whether it's about money or politics or crime or love or health-- is in large part about psychology and the quirks of the human mind. When I am not writing, I am hanging out at Westside Club, riding my bicycle, listening to music and/or cooking for family and friends.

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