Catharsis is getting rid of unhappy memories or strong emotions such as anger or sadness by expressing them in some way.

Often we find parents who greet temper tantrums by saying "That's OK darling, let it all out...don't keep it bottled up inside - that's bad for you." In other words, these parents are strong believers of the Catharsis Hypothesis - The view that providing angry people with an opportunity to express their aggressive impulses in relatively safe ways will reduce their tendencies to engage in more harmful forms of aggression.

Does this really work? How accurate are the results of such a technique to manage aggression? Social psychologists have been asking the same question for years. While there are a group of individuals who strongly believe that catharsis ultimately helps in reducing aggression, many researchers have claimed to prove otherwise. According to recent research studies, it has been observed that the so-called venting activities such as watching, reading about, or imagining aggressive actions, or even engaging in 'play' aggression such as punching a punching bag, are more likely to increase subsequent aggression than to reduce it.

One such research conducted by Anderson et al. was to identify that if catharsis really works, then exposure to song with violent lyrics would allow people to "vent" aggressive thoughts or feelings; as a result, they would show lower levels of hostility and lower levels of aggressive thoughts. However, if catharsis does not work, exposure to songs with violent lyrics might actually increase hostility and aggressive cognition. Results of the studies were consistent: After hearing songs with violent lyrics, participants showed an increase both in hostile feelings and in aggressive thoughts. So, catharsis definitely did not occur.

Why does "letting it out" fail to reduce aggression? For several reasons:

  1. Anger may actually be increased when individuals think about wrongs they have suffered at the hands of others and imagining ways of harming these people.
  2. Watching aggressive scenes, listening to songs with aggressive lyrics, or merely thinking about revenge and other aggressive activities may activate even more aggressive thoughts and feelings.
  3. Even if catharsis did occur, the effect would probably be temporary; whatever made the people angry might occur again, so any benefits would be short term at best.

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