Searching for Catharsis with a Punching Bag after an Angry Fight?

Why aggression may not be the best outlet for anger

By Peter M. Vishton, PhDWilliam & Mary
Edited by Kate Findley and proofread by Angela Shoemaker, The Great Courses Daily

Have you heard that you should punch a pillow to get out some aggression after an angry fight? Professor Vishton examines the research on the effectiveness of this method as an anger-management tool.

Fist close up
Research significantly shows that taking a time out by stepping away from a situation reduces anger rather than a catharsis release of anger by screaming or hitting a punching bag. Photo By BOSS BTKPHOTOGRAPHY / Shutterstock

Catharsis and Anger Research

Screaming, hitting a punching bag, venting grievances—these are all examples of catharsis, which some people believe helps to release anger in a controlled way to avoid a breakdown later. As compelling as these examples can be, much recent evidence suggests that catharsis is a myth. Particularly at certain phases during the process of becoming angry, expressing the anger will usually result in more—not less—overall anger.

In one study, Ohio State University communication professor Brad Bushman and his colleagues began by recruiting participants and making them angry. They asked all of the participants to write essays on some controversial, sensitive topic—for example, arguing for the pro-life or pro-choice perspective on abortion. 

The experimenter then told the participants that their essays would be evaluated by an anonymous peer. In reality, the experimenter provided all of the ratings, and, regardless of the essay, gave them very negative reviews. 

All essays were rated as being of poor quality. A comment was also thrown in that this was the worst essay ever read. The participants received this feedback and felt angry. No surprises, yet.

Half of the participants were randomly assigned to a catharsis condition and allowed two minutes to vent their frustration by hitting a punching bag. The other participants simply waited for those two minutes.

Fueling the Fire

In the testing phase of the experiments, the participants played a game against an opponent in another room. At various parts of the game, the participants were given the opportunity to punish their opponent with loud blasts of noise. The participant was allowed to pick how loud and how long those sound blasts were. 

The opponent was actually another experimenter, although this was not disclosed to the participant. It was made clear that the opponent was not the person who had just evaluated the essay, either. This was just another person.

The basic prediction was that if catharsis works, then punching the heavy bag should reduce the amount of anger left in the brains of the participants. This lower level of anger should result in shorter, quieter bursts of noxious sound being directed at the opponents. 

Exactly the opposite result was obtained. Punching the heavy bag did not reduce the participants’ anger but significantly increased it.

More Catharsis Research

This result has been found in a wide range of experimental contexts: using several types of potential methods of catharsis, based on many different measures of anger, and over the course of more than 40 years of work. People who play aggressive sports, in which presumably they would be given frequent exposure to cathartic physical activity, tend to be more aggressive than those who do not. 

In one study, participants were insulted by someone. Then they were allowed to pound nails for several minutes. This resulted in more angry criticism of the person who made the insult—not less. 

Brad Bushman has become a leading critic of children’s frequent exposure to violent video games. Playing games in which a participant experiences simulated aggression is not cathartic, but instead, results in expected, significant increases in aggressive behavior.

Most research in this area has increasingly focused on why we often think that catharsis works as a strategy for reducing anger, even when the data so clearly suggests that it has the opposite effect. Researchers have found at least two reasons. 

One is that catharsis feels good. When you engage in intense physical activity, your brain produces many hormones that result in a sense of pleasure—endorphins, dopamine, and norepinephrine, just to name three. 

A second reason is that sometimes getting away from an angry interaction can help us to more effectively deal with it when we return. For example, if you get angry at your dog for making a mess, getting away from the situation for a few minutes can allow you time to develop a more appropriate perspective on the situation. The evidence suggests that it would be better not to punch a heavy bag during that time, but the time away might still help.

This article was edited by Kate Findley, Writer for The Great Courses Daily, and proofread by Angela Shoemaker, Proofreader and Copy Editor for The Great Courses Daily.
Image of Professor Peter Vishton

Peter M. Vishton is Associate Professor of Psychology at William & Mary. He earned his PhD in Psychology and Cognitive Science from Cornell University. Before joining the faculty of William & Mary, he taught at Northwestern University and served as the program director for developmental and learning sciences at the National Science Foundation.

About Kate Findley 371 Articles
Kate is a writer, novelist, and blogger living in Los Angeles. She has been writing for The Great Courses since 2017. It incorporates her two favorite things: writing and learning.