Frustration leads to aggression
Any observer of human emotions recognizes that certain circumstances and actions by others seem to make us mad. When we are intentionally hurt, insulted, cheated, deceived, or made fun of--all these things arouse anger and aggression (Byrne & Kelley, 1981) and distrustful people have more of these experiences. In each case we had hoped for more--for more consideration, more fairness, more understanding. We were frustrated, i.e. prevented from achieving some desired goal. Some theorists believe that anger just naturally results from frustration. This is called the frustration-aggression hypothesis.
Our frustration will be more intense if our goal is highly desirable, if we "get close" to our goal and expect to get it, if the barrier to our goal unexpectedly appears and seems unjustified or unfair, and if we "take things personally" (Aronson, 1984; Berkowitz, 1989). There are several physiological reactions that accompany frustration, including higher blood pressure, sweating, and greater energy. Psychosomatic symptoms, such as heart disease, occur more often in people who are cynics and distrustful but hold in their anger. Some of us explode, others swallow feelings. Our blood pressure sometimes goes up more when we explode, at other times it goes up more when we swallow the feelings, depending on the situation. The more physiologically damaging anger reactions seem to occur under two extreme conditions, namely, when we feel utterly helpless, or, the opposite, when we have overly optimistic expectations of reaching unreachable goals.
It is obvious that even though we are frustrated and feel angry, we may not become aggressive--not if such a response might result in our being injured or rejected or fired. Yet, if you think of anger as a drive, an urge inside striving for expression, then merely deciding to placate your boss or an obnoxious football player doesn't do anything to reduce your anger (indeed, probably increases it). We can learn to control our anger but as a basic drive it remains there seeking some expression. That's the theory (both Freud and Dollard and Miller, 1950).
There are two implications (both seriously questioned recently):
- The unexpressed anger will spill out in other directions (displacement). For example, Dollard and Miller described a teenage boy who was unable to go on a trip because his friend had a cold. Not long after this he got into a big fight with his little sister. This displaced aggression is directed away from the real target and towards a safer target, called a scapegoat. This provides a partial release of the pent up frustration but the initial disappointment may never be admitted and experienced fully. Indeed, displacement can also be a defense against recognizing the real source of anger (see chapter 5). Displacement is referred to several times in this chapter, especially under prejudice.
- When the angry feelings build up inside, presumably like pressure in a hydraulic system, it is thought by many therapists to be relieving to express the feelings and get them completely "off your chest." This is called venting or catharsis, a cleansing of the system. Early in Freud's career, psychoanalytic therapy depended heavily on catharsis--uncovering old emotional traumas and venting those feeling until we had some understanding of the internal stress and a thorough draining of the pent up emotions. It is a popular and common notion that feelings need to be expressed openly and completely. Clearly, when a child wants something he/she can't have, it is likely to cry, get angry, and even hit, i.e. vent feelings. We may not like it, but we see the frustration as an understandable reaction.
However, considerable recent research has been interpreted in such a way as to raise doubts about the value of trying to drain off our anger. First of all, it became pretty clear that watching violent behavior (films, TV, sports) carried out by others increases our own aggressive responses rather than draining off our anger (Bandura, 1973). It seems reasonable that seeing aggression acted out on the screen might provide a model and some encouragement to an already angry person. Certainly, watching a film is not the same as a catharsis in therapy, where a painful, personal experience is relived in full fury with the specific intention of emptying the person of toxic venom (anger).
Hokanson and others (Forest & Hokanson, 1975; Murray & Feshbach, 1978) have studied how to reduce anger arising from being shocked by an aggressive partner in an experiment. When given a choice among (1) being friendly to the mean partner, (2) shocking one's self, and (3) shocking the partner back, only attacking back (with shock) relieved the subject's emotional reaction (unless they were depressed--see chapter 6). However, in later studies, where the aggressive partner's behavior (# of shocks) could be modified by being friendly to him or by being self-punitive, both of these actions yielded a "cathartic-like" emotional relief without anger being released. So, there seems to be a variety of ways we can learn to handle our anger, including learning various means of controlling the aggressor.
Again, being "friendly" to someone who has hurt you and shocking yourself hardly seem to be the same kind of emotionally draining experience as a thorough catharsis or getting revenge (see next section).
Being aggressive and mean towards someone who has angered us does make us feel better but also makes us more inclined to hurt them even more later. Why is this? Probably because being hostile is easier the second time and still easier the 100th time; you've overcome your inhibitions against aggression; you've learned about aggression and its payoffs. But there are other reasons. Aronson (1984) points out that our negative feelings increase towards another person or group as we hurt them. The snowballing effect between thoughts and actions goes like this: "We are hurting them. We are decent people. Therefore, they must be bad." So we put them down more, justifying hurting them more, leading to more negative thoughts about them, etc. This mental put down-behavioral violence cycle occurs in abuse and in prejudice, which we will consider in more detail later.
Conclusions about catharsis
Is catharsis helpful or harmful? The problem is, as I see it, that catharsis can mean many things. Several scientists (Aronson, 1984; Lewis & Bucher, 1992; Bandura, 1973; Tavris, 1984) have sloppily accepted many diverse acts as being "catharsis" and prematurely concluded that all kinds of catharsis are ineffective or harmful. What the behaviorists call catharsis (almost any expression or even observation of emotion) is hardly therapeutic catharsis. For instance, Tavris clearly equates a dirty, abusive, vicious marital fight with catharsis. Unfortunately, this equation is naive and implies that therapists using catharsis might even advocate abusive violence.
What is catharsis in therapy? Well, most Freudians would say it was the expression of repressed (unconsciously held back) feelings that are causing problems. Sometimes the initial traumatic situation (often from childhood) is vividly relived, called an abreaction. Most non-Freudian psychotherapists would consider catharsis to be the intense expression (in therapy or alone) of conscious or unconscious emotions for the specific purpose of feeling better, gaining insight, and reducing the unwanted emotion. It doesn't involve watching a model of aggression; it never involves actually hurting someone.
Published descriptions of therapy provide thousands of examples of catharsis. Here's one. In the early 1880's, Josef Breuer, Freud's friend, was treating a bright, attractive young lady, Anna O. Among many other symptoms, she had a phobia of drinking water from a glass. She didn't understand the fear. Under hypnosis, Anna O. recalled being disgusted when she saw her tutor's dog (she hated both the tutor and the dog) drink from a glass. After Anna O. expressed her intense anger about the tutor, she immediately understood her rejecting the water (just like she rejected the tutor) and she could thereafter drink water from a glass. None of the current behavioral research has studied such a "cathartic" experience as Anna O's, probably because this kind of repressed experience can't be scheduled as a 30-minute lab assignment for Intro Psych students; it can be recorded in therapy, however. Furthermore, a straight-forward, easily controlled procedure for venting one's anger is available (see chapter 12) and could be researched readily. It focuses on reducing anger, not learning aggression. The same process occurs when you feel better after letting off steam with a friend.
I was angry with my friend:
I told my wrath, my wrath did end.
I was angry with my foe;
I hid my wrath, my wrath did grow.
I suspect intention and expectation of catharsis are crucially important in determining the outcome, e.g. if you beat a punching bag an hour a day thinking how you will punch out people you don't like, I suspect you will become more hostile and aggressive. If you punch the bag thinking that at the end of an hour you will be completely exhausted and cleansed of your hatred and will have a better understanding and more willingness to forgive the irritating person, I suspect you will become less agitated and aggressive. That needs to be proven in the lab.
One final observation about catharsis: many violent crimes are committed by people described as gentle, passive, quiet, easy-going, and good natured (see Truman Capote's In Cold Blood in which the "nicest boy in Kansas" kills his family). Everyone is surprised. Likewise, many psychological tests describe persons who have committed violent acts as ordinarily being over-controlled, i.e. not emotional or impulsive and very inhibited about expressing aggression against anyone. Thus, it seems that they may "store up" aggression until it is impossible to contain and, then, they explode. Many of us, who have been parents, have had a similar experience, namely, holding our tongue until we over-react with a verbal assault on the child.
The research about hostility suggests that a safe, appropriate way of releasing our anger is badly needed. Athletics are supposed to serve this function for some people but the data is contradictory. Byrne and Kelley (1981) say athletes are less aggressive; Aronson (1984) says they are more. In fact, Walker (1990) says calls to domestic violence centers go up after the man's team loses (displacement?). So, watching certain athletics may increase hostility. There is much we do not know about anger, displacement, catharsis, and the means of controlling our anger.
At the very least, research psychologists and psychotherapists should more clearly define "catharsis." It is not playing or watching sports, writing stories about aggression, fighting in a war, shocking someone in an experiment, watching someone hit a Bobo doll, or watching TV violence. It is well documented that watching, fantasizing, or acting out violence increases the probability that you will be more violent in the future. In contrast, the end result of catharsis is, in some cases, peace and calm, not aggression. Averill & Nunley (1993) say expressing emotions in therapy can change a person's view and interpretation of the situation. Also, expressing an emotion, such as anger, can result in finding ways to change the irritating situation. Once the released emotion is discussed with a therapist or friend, you are in a better position to make plans for coping with the feelings and the circumstances. Obviously, some people can calm themselves down, i.e. reduce their anger. Anger control and health seem to be related to feeling in control (see self-efficacy in chapter 14), trusting and accepting others or at least not seeing them as mean, selfish, and exploitative, and being able to assertively express our negative feelings (see chapter 13). These are skills many of us need to learn (Lewis & Bucher, 1992).