In the past, when I was angry, I often thought that being able to express why I was mad would help me deal with my anger. My basic idea was that venting about my anger would operate like a release valve, and my anger would subside. Unfortunately, I never kept track of whether or not venting worked, but thankfully there is research to help fill in those gaps.
The short answer is, venting doesn’t help. In fact, it probably makes things worse.
Researcher Brad Bushman has conducted several studies on the different ways people try to deal with their anger, taking careful note of those methods that work and those that do not. Thinking (also known as ruminating) or talking about why we are angry appears to make us more angry, and maybe also more aggressive. They also found that acting out anger in a so-called more “positive” way — such as hitting a punching bag — seems to make matters worse as well.
So, rather than alleviating our anger, venting makes us madder and more likely to lash out.
Bushman and his colleagues found, however, that distancing ourselves can work very well. In an experimental study they asked some angry people to think about their anger as if they were watching the situation from a distance. These people reported diminished levels of anger. This approach is also known as perspective taking — stepping back from the situation and, perhaps, trying to see what is happening through the eyes of another person. This process seems to diffuse our anger, perhaps because we do indeed see the bigger picture of the situation and are not lost in our own “righteous indignation.”
Recently when I was walking to work, I watched two cars playing an aggressive game of stoplight racing. The “game” became more aggressive as each driver tried to cutoff the other. It ended in angry shouts, obscene gestures, and one driver in a business suit hammering the car of the other. And all of this to see who could get to the next red light the fastest? Wish I could have helped these two distance themselves from the situation.
The sad punch line is that I knew one of the drivers, but no, I haven’t mentioned the scene. Yet.
We hope you are flourishing
Matt and the team
- Bushman, B. (2002). Does venting anger feed or extinguish the flame? catharsis, rumination, distraction, anger and aggressive responding. Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin, 28(6), 724-731.
- Mischkowskia, D. Kross, E. & Bushman, B. J. (2012). Flies on the wall are less aggressive: Self-distancing “in the heat of the moment” reduces aggressive thoughts, angry feelings and aggressive behaviour. Journal of Experimental Social Psychology