By, Adam K. Fetterman
Generally, catharsis can be described as the venting of aggressive energy in a socially acceptable way. Brad Bushman, Craig Anderson, and others are thought to have put this idea to rest a long time ago. However, they continue to add nails to the coffin, presumably, as Wray Herbert asserts, because catharsis is still widely believed to work. Wray Herbert recently wrote a post in response to the California Supreme Court’s decision that banning sales of violent video games to children was unconstitutional. In it, he describes some of the latest work coming from Bushman and his colleagues. The research indicates that those that believe in catharsis gravitate toward violent video games. This is yet another attempt to demonize both the idea of catharsis and violent video games, as Bushman and his colleagues seem so constantly eager to do. It is interesting that they show that belief in catharsis (an individual difference) leads to choosing violent video games, because it seems that much of the research on the topic tends to minimize the role of individual differences. However, violent video games are not the issue here. The issue at hand is the idea of catharsis.
While I have not done a exhaustive review of catharsis research, I am quite versed with the literature. Given the specific definition of catharsis as operationalized by certain researchers, one could conclude that catharsis does not work and may actually increase aggression. However, their definitions do not always align with more casual definitions of catharsis. Furthermore, the timeline of aggression reduction and the role of individual differences are often minimized; due to space constraints, I can give only a couple of examples. As for the issue of the type of catharsis being researched, many times the venting acts involve direct aggression towards an offending party as opposed to indirect aggression (e.g., hitting a pillow). In regards to the timeline, the “increased” aggression witnessed, in many studies, shortly follows the cathartic behavior. Indeed, it seems that for catharsis to work, an individual would need to be removed from the offending situation. Moreover, these studies should investigate the longer term health benefits to release (i.e., reduction in blood pressure). Finally, like most of the research involving violent video games, many catharsis experiments either fail to control for individual differences in tendencies towards violence and aggression, or simply minimize the role of this factor. All of this is beside the issues of ecological validity and meaningful effect sizes.
Additionally, not all researchers fail to find positive effects of catharsis. For example, Murray and Feshbach (1978) found that aggressive movements led to a decrease in aggressive fantasy, while non-aggressive movements did not. Future studies should re-investigate this study using more contemporary methods (i.e., video games). In any case, for me, the jury is still out on the case of catharsis.
Author’s note: Depending on age, I do not believe children should be exposed to violent video games.
Read all of Adam K. Fetterman’s posts here.