PERSONALITY AND SOCIAL PSYCHOLOGY BULLETIN
Bushman / VENTING ANGER FEEDS THE FLAME
Does Venting Anger Feed or Extinguish the Flame?
Catharsis, Rumination, Distraction,
Anger, and Aggressive Responding
Brad J. Bushman
Iowa State University
Does distraction or rumination work better to diffuse anger?
Catharsis theory predicts that rumination works best, but empir
ical evidence is lacking. In this study, angered participants hit a
punching bag and thought about the person who had angered
them (rumination group) or thought about becoming physically
fit (distraction group). After hitting the punching bag, they
reported how angry they felt. Next, they were given the chance to
administer loud blasts of noise to the person who had angered
them. There also was a no punching bag control group. People in
the rumination group felt angrier than did people in the distrac-
tion or control groups. People in the rumination group were also
most aggressive, followed respectively by people in the distraction
and control groups. Rumination increased rather than
decreased anger and aggression. Doing nothing at all was more
effective than venting anger. These results directly contradict
The belief in the value of venting anger has become
widespread in our culture. In movies, magazine articles,
and even on billboards, people are encouraged to vent
their anger and “blow off steam.” For example, in the
movie Analyze This, a psychiatrist (played by Billy Crystal)
tells his New York gangster client (played by Robert De
Niro), “You know what I do when I’m angry? I hit a pil
low. Try that.” The client promptly pulls out his gun,
points it at the couch, and fires several bullets into the
pillow. “Feel better?” asks the psychiatrist. “Yeah, I do,”
says the gunman. In a Vogue magazine article, female
model Shalom concludes that boxing helps her release
pent-up anger. She said,
I found myself looking forward to the chance to pound
out the frustrations of the week against Carlos’s (her
trainer) mitts. Let’s face it: A personal boxing trainer has
advantages over a husband or lover. He won’t look at you
accusingly and say, “I don’t know where this irritation is
coming from.” ...Yourboxing trainer knows it’s in there.
And he wants you to give it to him. (“Fighting Fit,” 1993,
In a New York Times Magazine article about hate crimes,
Andrew Sullivan writes, “Some expression of prejudice
serves a useful purpose. It lets off steam; it allows natural
tensions to express themselves incrementally; it can
siphon off conflict through words, rather than actions”
(Sullivan, 1999, p. 113). A large billboard in Missouri
states, “Hit a Pillow, Hit a Wall, But Don’t Hit Your Kids!”
The theory of catharsis is one popular and authorita-
tive statement that venting one’s anger will produce a
positive improvement in one’s psychological state. The
word catharsis comes from the Greek word katharsis,
which literally translated means a cleansing or purging.
According to catharsis theory, acting aggressively or even
viewing aggression is an effective way to purge angry and
Sigmund Freud believed that repressed negative emo
tions could build up inside an individual and cause psy
chological symptoms, such as hysteria (nervous out
bursts). Breuer and Freud (1893-1895/1955) proposed
that the treatment of hysteria required the discharge of
the emotional state previously associated with trauma.
They claimed that for interpersonal traumas, such as
Author’s Note: I would like to thank Remy Reinier for her help scan
ning photo IDs of students and photographs from health magazines. I
also would like to thank Angelica Bonacci for her helpful comments on
an early draft of this article. Correspondence concerning this article
should be addressed to Brad J. Bushman, Department of Psychology,
Iowa State University, Ames, IA 50011-3180; e-mail: bushman@
PSPB, Vol. 28 No. 6, June 2002 724-731
© 2002 by the Society for Personality and Social Psychology, Inc.
insults and threats to the ego, emotional expression
could be obtained through direct aggression: “The reac
tion of an injured person to a trauma has really only ...a
‘cathartic’ effect if it is expressed in an adequate reaction
like revenge” (p. PAGE?). Breuer and Freud believed
that expressing anger was much better than bottling it
Freud’s therapeutic ideas on emotional catharsis
form the basis of the hydraulic model of anger. The
hydraulic model suggests that frustrations lead to anger
and that anger, in turn, builds up inside an individual,
similar to hydraulic pressure inside a closed environ
ment, until it is released in some way. If people do not let
their anger out but try to keep it bottled up inside, it will
eventually cause them to explode in an aggressive rage.
The modern theories of catharsis are based on this
model. Catharsis is seen as a way of relieving the pressure
that the anger creates inside the psyche. The core idea is
that it is better to let the anger out here and there in little
bits as opposed to keeping it inside as it builds up to the
point at which a more dangerous explosion results.
If venting really does get anger “out of your system,”
then venting should decrease aggression because people
are less angry. Almost as soon as psychology researchers
began conducting scientific tests of catharsis theory, the
theory ran into trouble. In one of the first experiments
on the topic (Hornberger, 1959), participants first
received an insulting remark from a confederate. Next,
half of the participants pounded nails for 10 minutes—
an activity that resembles many of the “venting” tech-
niques that people who believe in catharsis continue to
recommend even today. The other half did not get a
chance to vent their anger by pounding nails. After this,
all participants had a chance to criticize the person who
had insulted them. If catharsis theory is true, the act of
pounding nails should reduce subsequent aggression.
The results showed the opposite effect. The people who
had hammered the nails were more (rather than less)
hostile toward the confederate afterward than were the
ones who did not get to pound any nails.
In 1973, Albert Bandura issued a statement calling for
a moratorium on catharsis theory and the use of venting
in therapy. Four years later, Geen and Quanty (1977)
published their influential review of catharsis theory in
Advances in Experimental Social Psychology. After reviewing
the relevant data, they concluded that venting anger
does not reduce aggression. If anything, they concluded,
it makes people more aggressive afterward. More recent
research has come to similar conclusions (e.g.,
Bushman, Baumeister, & Stack, 1999). Geen and Quanty
also concluded that venting anger can reduce physiolog
ical arousal but people must express their anger directly
against the provocateur. People also must believe that
the provocateur will not retaliate. Venting against substi
tute targets does not reduce arousal.
Cognitive Neoassociation Theory
According to cognitive neoassociation theory
(Berkowitz, 1993), aversive events (e.g., frustrations,
provocations, hot temperatures) produce negative
affect. Negative affect, in turn, automatically stimulates
thoughts, memories, expressive motor reactions, and
physiological responses associated with both fight and
flight tendencies. The fight associations give rise to rudi
mentary feelings of anger, whereas the flight associations
give rise to rudimentary feelings of fear.
Cognitive neoassociation theory posits that aggressive
thoughts are linked together in memory, thereby form
ing an associative network. Once an aggressive thought is
processed or stimulated, activation spreads out along the
network links and primes or activates associated
thoughts as well. Not only are associated aggressive
thoughts linked together in memory but thoughts are
also linked along the same sort of associative lines to
emotional reactions and action tendencies (Bower,
1981; Lang, 1979). Thus, the activation of aggressive
thoughts can engender a complex of associations con-
sisting of aggressive ideas, emotions related to violence,
and the impetus for aggressive actions.
Cognitive neoassociation theory predicts that venting
should increase rather than decrease angry feelings and
aggressive behaviors. Venting involves behaving aggres-
sively, often against “safe” inanimate objects. To vent,
people punch pillows, wallop punching bags, beat on
couches with foam baseball bats, throw dishes on the
ground, kick trash cans, scream and swear into pillows,
and so forth. In essence, venting is practicing how to
behave aggressively. Such aggressive activity should
prime aggressive thoughts, feelings, and behavioral ten
dencies, especially if the people think about the source
of their anger while venting. Thus, venting should keep
angry feelings active in memory and also should increase
the likelihood of subsequent aggressive responses.
Rumination and Distraction
Most pop psychology and self-help books implicitly
assume that people are ruminating about their provoca
teur while venting anger. Some authors, however, are
more explicit. For example, John Lee (1993) gives the
following advice to angry people in his popular book Fac
ing the Fire: Experiencing and Expressing Anger Appropriately:
Punch a pillow or a punching bag. Punch with all the
frenzy you can. If you are angry at a particular person,
imagine his or her face on the pillow or punching bag,
and vent your rage physically and verbally. You will be
doing violence to a pillow or punching bag so that you
Bushman / VENTING ANGER FEEDS THE FLAME 725
can stop doing violence to yourself by holding in poison
ous anger. (p. 96)
Some devices for venting anger make it easy for people
to ruminate about their provocateur. For example, con
sider the following advertisement from a toy catalog:
WHEN YOU NEED SOMETHING THAT WON’T HIT
BACK. Wham-It stands 42” tall and takes abuse from kids
and adults alike. When you feel like you just have to
strike out, Wham-It is always on call. New clear vinyl
pocket lets you insert a photo or drawing.
Rumination is defined as “self-focused attention,” or
directing attention inward on the self, and particularly
on one’s negative mood (Lyubomirsky & Nolen-
Hoeksema, 1995). Any process that serves to exacerbate
a negative mood, such as rumination, should increase
anger and aggression. In contrast, any process that dis
tracts attention away from an angry mood should reduce
anger and aggression. If provoked individuals are
induced to think about how they feel, they will maintain,
or exacerbate, their angry mood. If they are induced to
think about something else, however, the anger will dissi-
pate in time.
Previous research has shown that rumination
increases angry feelings. In one study (Rusting & Nolen-
Hoeksema, 1998), college students were angered by
reading a story about a professor who treated a student
unfairly and were told to imagine themselves in a similar
situation. Some students ruminated by writing about
emotion-focused and self-focused topics (i.e., “Why do
you think the way you do”), whereas others were dis
tracted by writing about nonemotional, irrelevant topics
(i.e., “the layout of the local post office”). Participants
who ruminated for 20 minutes reported being angrier
than did participants who were distracted. Another study
found that aggression toward an insulting confederate
was decreased by having people solve distracting math
problems (Konecni, 1974). Solving the math problems
presumably distracted people from the source of their
anger. Two other studies found that rumination
increased displaced aggression after a minor triggering
event (Bushman, Pedersen, Vasquez, Bonacci, & Miller,
2001). In Study 1, provoked participants focused atten
tion on or away from their negative mood and later
engaged in displaced aggression against a competent or
fumbling confederate. Provoked participants who rumi
nated engaged in more displaced aggression against the
fumbling confederate than did participants who were
distracted. Study 2 replicated the findings from Study 1
using different operational definitions and a substan
tially longer (8-hour) rumination period.
To date, no research has examined the effects of rumi
nation and distraction in the effects of venting activities
on anger and subsequent aggression. According to cog
nitive neoassociation theory, ruminating while venting
should prime aggressive thoughts, feelings, and behav
In the present study, 600 college students (300 men,
300 women) were first angered by another participant
who criticized an essay they had written. In fact, there was
no other participant. Next, participants were randomly
assigned to rumination, distraction, or control groups.
Participants in the rumination group hit a punching bag
as long, as hard, and as many times as they wanted to.
While they hit the bag, they were told to think about the
other participant who had criticized their essay. For a
visual aid, they were shown a photo ID of a same-sex col
lege student described as the “other participant” on a 15-
inch computer monitor. Participants in the distraction
group also hit a punching bag as long, as hard, and as
many times as they wanted to. While they hit the bag,
they were told to think about becoming physically fit. As
a visual aid, they were shown a photo ID of a same-sex
athlete from a health magazine on a 15-inch computer
monitor. Participants in the control group did not hit the
punching bag. Instead, they sat quietly for a couple min-
utes while the experimenter supposedly worked on the
other participant’s computer. No attempt was made to
reduce the anger of participants in the control group.
Anger was measured using a mood form. Aggression was
measured by allowing participants to blast their provoca-
teur with loud and long noises through a pair of head-
phones on a competitive reaction time task. Catharsis
theory would predict the lowest levels of anger and
aggression among participants in the rumination condi
tion. Cognitive neoassociation theory would predict the
exact opposite results.
Participants were 600 undergraduate college students
(300 men and 302 women) enrolled in introductory psy
Students received extra course credit
in exchange for their voluntary participation. The data
from 2 women were discarded because they refused to
hit the punching bag. The final sample consisted of 300
men and 300 women. There were 100 men and 100
women in each of the three experimental conditions
(i.e., rumination, distraction, control).
Participants were tested individually, but each was led
to believe that he or she would be interacting with
726 PERSONALITY AND SOCIAL PSYCHOLOGY BULLETIN
another participant of the same sex. They were told that
the researchers were studying first impressions.
After giving informed consent, each participant wrote
a one-paragraph essay on abortion, either pro-choice or
pro-life (whichever the participant supported). After fin
ishing, the participant’s essay was taken away to be shown
to the other participant (who was in fact nonexistent) for
evaluation. Meanwhile, the participant was permitted to
evaluate the partner’s essay, which expressed the oppo
site view on abortion (e.g., if the participant’s essay was
pro-choice, the partner’s essay was pro-life).
A short time later, the experimenter brought the par
ticipant’s own essay back with comments ostensibly
made by the other participant. All participants received
bad evaluations consisting of negative ratings on organi
zation, originality, writing style, clarity of expression, per
suasiveness of arguments, and overall quality. The rat
ings ranged from –10 to –8 on a 21-point scale ranging
from –10 (very bad) to +10 (very good). There was also a
handwritten comment stating “This is one of the worst
essays I have read!” Previous research has shown that this
procedure makes people quite angry (e.g., Bushman &
Baumeister, 1998; Bushman et al., 1999; Bushman,
Baumeister, & Phillips, 2001).
After reading the evaluation, the participant rated
how much they wanted to perform each of 10 activities
on a list. Included in this list of activities was “hitting a
punching bag.” Other activities included playing soli-
taire, reading a short story, watching a comedy, and play-
ing a computer game. Ratings were made on a 10-point
scale ranging from 1 (not at all) to 10 (extremely).
The punching bag manipulation came next. Two
thirds of participants received the punching bag proce
dure. If the participant did not rank the punching bag
activity first, the experiment asked if the participant
would be willing to hit the punching bag, explaining that
ratings were needed for each activity on the list and that
more ratings were needed for the punching bag activity.
By requesting the participant to agree, we were able to
ensure that the punching bag activity was the result of
choice by all participants, including those who had not
originally listed it as their top choice.
Participants who received the punching bag proce
dure were told that because physical appearance could
influence their impression of their partner, a coin would
be tossed to determine whether they would know what
their partner looked like. On the basis of the coin toss,
participants were assigned to rumination or distraction
conditions. Participants in the rumination condition
were told that they would know what their partner
looked like. On a 15-inch computer monitor, partici
pants were shown a photo ID of another Iowa State Uni
versity student of the same sex. The experimenter actu
ally rolled a die to determine which of six photo IDs to
show. The names and identification numbers were
removed from all IDs. The experiment then gave the
participant some boxing gloves and demonstrated how
to hit the 70-pound punching bag (Everlast, Model
4820). Participants were told that they should think
about their partner while hitting the bag.
Participants in the distraction condition were told
that they would not know what their partner looked like.
Instead of thinking about their partner while hitting the
bag, they were told to think about becoming physically
fit. Instead of seeing a photo ID of their partner on the
computer screen, they saw a photo of someone of the
same sex exercising. The photos were taken from fitness
magazines and the experimenter rolled a die to deter
mine which photo to show.
Participants in both the rumination and distraction
condition were told that their partner would not see
them (due to the coin toss). The participant was left
alone to hit the punching bag. They were told they could
hit it as long and as many times as they wanted to.
Because there was an intercom system in the partici
pant’s room, the experimenter was able to time how long
the participant hit the bag and count the number of
times the participant hit the bag. The experimenter also
rated how hard the participant hit the bag on a 10-point
scale ranging from 1 (very soft)to10(very hard). The
experimenter also asked the participant how hard he or
she hit the bag (using the same 10-point scale). Partici-
pants then indicated how much they enjoyed hitting the
punching bag on a 10-point scale ranging from 1 (not at
all) to 10 (extremely).
Participants in the control condition did not hit the
punching bag. Instead, they sat quietly for 2 minutes.
The justification for the delay was that the experimenter
was fixing their partner’s computer. No attempt was
made to reduce participant’s anger during the 2-minute
delay. Instead, participants in the no punching bag
group did nothing at all. This allowed us to test whether
angry people are better off doing nothing at all than
engaging in cathartic activities.
Next, participants completed a mood form that mea
sured anger and positive affect. The anger measure con
sisted of 15 adjectives (e.g., angry, annoyed, furious) from
the hostility subscale of the revised Multiple Affect
Adjective Checklist (Zuckerman & Lubin, 1985). The
positive affect measure consisted of 10 adjectives (e.g.,
alert, determined, enthusiastic) from the positive affect
subscale of the Positive and Negative Affect Schedule
(Watson, Clarke, & Tellegen, 1988). Watson and his col
leagues define positive affect as a state of “high energy,
full concentration, and pleasurable engagement” (p.
1063). All adjectives were rated along a 5-point Likert-
type scale, where 1 = very slightly or not at all,2=a little,3=
moderately,4=quite a bit,and5=extremely. Participants
Bushman / VENTING ANGER FEEDS THE FLAME 727
were told to “indicate to what extent you feel this way
right now, that is, at the present moment.” The alpha
coefficients for the measures of anger and positive affect
were .88 and .89, respectively.
The next part of the procedure was presented as a
competitive reaction time task, based on a paradigm
developed by Taylor (1967). Previous studies have estab
lished the construct validity of this paradigm (e.g.,
Bernstein, Richardson, & Hammock, 1987; Giancola &
Zeichner, 1995). The participant was told that he or she
and the partner would have to press a button as fast as
possible on each trial and whoever was slower would
receive a blast of noise. The participant was permitted to
set in advance the intensity of the noise that the other
person would receive between 60 decibels (level 1) and
105 decibels (level 10) if the other lost. A nonaggressive
no-noise setting (level 0) also was offered. In addition to
deciding the intensity, the winner decided the duration
of the loser’s suffering because the duration of the noise
depended on how long the winner held the button
pressed down. In effect, each participant controlled a
weapon that could be used to blast the other person if
the participant won the competition to react faster.
The reaction time task consisted of 25 trials. After the
initial (no provocation) trial, the remaining 24 trials
were divided into three blocks with eight trials in each
block. Within each block of trials, the other participant
set random noise levels (ranging from 65 decibels to 100
decibels) and random noise durations (ranging from
0.25 seconds to 2.5 seconds). The participant heard
noise on half of the trials within each block (randomly
determined). An iMac computer controlled the events
in the reaction time task and recorded the noise levels
and noise durations the participant set for the other per
son. The white noise was delivered through a pair of
Telephonics TDH-39P headphones.
Half of participants completed the mood form first,
followed by the competitive reaction time task. The
other half of the participants completed the competitive
reaction time task first, followed by the mood checklist. A
full oral debriefing (with probe for suspicion) followed.
Because none of the participants expressed any suspi
cion, all 300 were included in the data analyses.
Counterbalance order did not significantly influence
responses on any of the measures (ps > .05). Thus, data
from the two counterbalance orders were combined for
PUNCHING BAG PREFERENCE
It was important to determine whether participants in
the three groups differed in their desire to hit the punch
ing bag after they had been angered. Because partici
pants were randomly assigned to conditions, no differ
ences were expected. We also tested for sex differences
in punching bag preferences. Because aggressive activi
ties are more socially acceptable among men than
among women, punching bag preferences were
expected to be higher among men.
Desire to hit the punching bag. Ratings of how much par
ticipants wanted to hit the punching bag were analyzed
using a 3 (rumination, distraction, control) × 2 (men,
women) analysis of variance. Men wanted to hit the
punching bag more than did women, M = 4.33, SD = 2.77
and M = 3.10, SD = 2.33, F(1, 588) = 33.87, p < .0001, d =
0.48. As expected, the effects involving experimental
condition were nonsignificant (ps > .05).
Punching bag selected as top activity choice. Whether par
ticipants selected hitting a punching bag as their top
choice of activities was a dichotomous variable (1 =
selected hitting a punching bag as top choice, 0 =
selected another activity as top choice). Thus, these data
were analyzed using a 3 (rumination, distraction, con-
trol) × 2 (men, women) log-linear analysis. Men were
more likely to select hitting a punching bag as their top
choice than were women, 6% and 1%, χ
(1, N = 600) =
6.58, p < .01, φ = .13. As expected, the effects involving
experimental condition were nonsignificant (ps > .05).
PUNCHING BAG MEASURES
It was important to test whether participants in the
rumination group vented more than did participants in
the distraction group.
How hard the punching bag was hit. The intraclass corre
lation between experimenter and participant ratings of
how hard the bag was hit was .69 (Shrout & Fleiss, 1979).
The same pattern of results also was found for the two
ratings. Thus, the two ratings were averaged.
Overall, men hit the punching bag harder than did
women, M = 6.69, SD = 2.05 and M = 4.73, SD = 1.88, F(1,
396) = 99.14, p < .0001, d = 1.00. No other effects were sig
nificant (ps > .05).
Number of times punching bag was hit. Participants who
thought about becoming physically fit hit the punching
bag more times than did participants who thought about
the person who insulted them, M = 127.5, SD = 63.5 and
M = 112.2, SD = 57.5, F(1, 396) = 6.31, p < .05, d = 0.25. In
other words, participants in the rumination group
vented less than did participants in the distraction
group. No other effects were significant (ps > .05).
728 PERSONALITY AND SOCIAL PSYCHOLOGY BULLETIN
Time spent hitting punching bag. No significant effects
were found for time spent hitting the punching bag (ps>
Enjoyed hitting the punching bag. Men enjoyed hitting
the punching bag more than did women, M = 6.11, SD =
2.53 and M = 4.96, SD = 2.51, F(1, 396) = 20.85, p < .0001,
d = 0.46. No other effects were significant (ps > .05).
There was no significant effect for experimental con
dition on positive mood, F(2, 594) = 0.24, p > .05 (see
Table 1). Regardless of the condition they were in, men
were in a more positive mood than were women, M =
31.51, SD = 7.85 and M = 28.12, SD = 7.40, F(1, 594) =
29.31, p < .0001, d = 0.44.
There was a main effect for experimental condition
on anger, F(2, 594) = 5.23, p < .01 (see Table 1). Partici
pants in the rumination group felt more angry than did
participants in the distraction and control groups,
t(594) = 2.20, p < .05, d = 0.22 and t(594) = 3.15, p < .005,
d = 0.31. Participants in distraction and control groups
did not differ in terms of how angry they felt, t(594) =
0.95, p > .05.
The same pattern of results was found for the two
measures of aggression—noise intensity and noise dura-
tion. Thus, the two measures were standardized and
summed to form a more reliable measure of aggression.
The same pattern of results also was obtained on Trial 1
and on the remaining 24 trials of the competitive reac
tion-time task. Thus, the responses on the 25 trials were
standardized and summed.
There was a main effect for experimental condition
on aggression, F(2, 594) = 5.03, p < .01 (see Table 1). Par
ticipants in the rumination group were more aggressive
than participants in the control group, t(594) = 3.17,
p < .005, d = 0.30. Participants in the distraction group
were more aggressive than participants in the control
group and were less aggressive than participants in the
rumination group, although neither difference was sta
tistically significant, ts(594) = 1.68 and 1.49, ps > .05. Men
were also more aggressive than were women, M = 0.44,
SD = 1.62 and M = –0.44, SD = 0.99, F(1, 594) = 66.52, p <
.0001, d = 0.33.
Does venting anger extinguish or feed the flame? The
results from the present research show that venting to
reduce anger is like using gasoline to put out a fire—it
only feeds the flame. By fueling aggressive thoughts and
feelings, venting also increases aggressive responding.
People who walloped the punching bag while thinking
about the person who had provoked them were the most
angry and the most aggressive in the present experi
ment. Venting did not lead to a more positive mood
People in the distraction group were less angry than
were people in the rumination group, but they were not
less aggressive. Thus, performing an aggressive activity
such as hitting a punching bag can increase aggression
even if people are distracted while performing the
In the present experiment, people were best off doing
nothing at all than venting their anger. No attempt was
made to reduce anger or aggressive impulses in the con-
trol group. Even so, anger and aggression levels were
lowest in the control group. The results might have been
more dramatic if participants in the control group
actively sought to reduce their angry feelings.
Overall, the present results support cognitive
neoassociation theory (Berkowitz, 1993) and directly
contradict catharsis theory. Venting while ruminating
about the source of provocation kept aggressive
thoughts and angry feelings active in memory and only
made people more angry and more aggressive. These
results provide one more nail in the coffin containing
Magnitude of Observed Effects
Although the effects obtained in the present study
were small to moderate in size (see Cohen, 1988), they
are in the opposite direction predicted by catharsis the
ory. In the present study, the distraction activity was an
aggressive one—angered people hit a punching bag.
Larger effects might have been obtained if distraction
activity would have been a nonaggressive one, such as
working a crossword puzzle. Similarly, larger effects
might have been obtained if angered people would have
engaged in a behavior incompatible with anger and
aggression, such as watching a funny TV program or pet
ting a puppy (e.g., Baron, 1976, 1983).
Bushman / VENTING ANGER FEEDS THE FLAME 729
TABLE 1: Anger and Aggression Levels for Participants in the
Control, Distraction, and Rumination Groups
Measure Control Distraction Rumination
Positive mood 29.61
NOTE: n = 200 in each group. Standard deviations are in parentheses.
Subscripts refer to within-row comparisons. Means having the same
subscript are not significantly different at the .05 significance level.
Can These Findings Be Due to Arousal?
One well-known finding in psychology is that arousal
enhances whatever response is dominant (e.g., Cottrell
& Wack, 1967; Criddle, 1971; Eysenck, 1975; Markovsky
& Berger, 1983; Zajonc, Heingartner, & Herman, 1969;
Zajonc & Sales, 1966). This finding is central to the drive
theory of social facilitation (e.g., Geen & Bushman,
1987, 1989). Walloping a punching bag for a few minutes
can certainly increase arousal levels. Because partici
pants in the present study all were provoked, it seems
likely that aggression would be a dominant response for
them. Arousal cannot, however, explain the pattern of
results obtained in the present study. If anything, people
in the distraction group should have been more aggres
sive than people in the rumination group because they
hit the punching bag a greater number of times. The
results, however, were in the opposite direction.
Is Intense Physical Activity an
Effective Technique for Managing Anger?
If used as a form of distraction, intense physical activ-
ity does not necessarily increase anger, even if the activity
is aggressive in nature (e.g., hitting a punching bag).
Physical activity should, however, increase anger if the
person is provoked after engaging in the intense physical
activity. According to excitation transfer theory, the
arousal from the physical activity will be misattributed to
the provocation and will therefore transfer to the provo-
cation (e.g., Zillmann, 1979). Mislabeling the arousal
from the physical activity as anger would therefore
increase aggressive responding (e.g., Zillmann, Katcher,
& Milavsky, 1972). In the present study, participants were
provoked before engaging in an intense physical activity,
so excitation transfer should not occur. Although it
might be good for your heart, intense physical activity is
probably not an effective technique for reducing anger
Catharsis theory predicts that venting anger should
get rid of it and should therefore reduce subsequent
aggression. The present findings, as well as previous
findings, directly contradict catharsis theory (e.g.,
Bushman et al., 1999; Geen & Quanty, 1977). For reduc
ing anger and aggression, the worst possible advice to
give people is to tell them to imagine their provocateur’s
face on a pillow or punching bag as they wallop it, yet this
is precisely what many pop psychologists advise people to
do. If followed, such advice will only make people
angrier and more aggressive.
1. According to Cohen (1988), most of the effects in the social sci
ences are small to moderate in size. I assumed that the effect obtained
in the present study would be in this range. A power analysis (Cohen,
1988) revealed that with power = .80 and two-sided significance level =
.05, 400 participants were needed in each group to detect a small effect
(i.e., d = 0.20) and 64 participants were needed in each group to detect
a moderate effect (i.e., d = 0.50). Thus, the present study included 200
participants in each group.
2. One man in the rumination group became so angry while hitting
the punching bag that he also punched a hole in the laboratory wall.
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Received March 20, 2001
Revision accepted September 8, 2001
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