A bad idea to combat stress

By Patrick Mattimore (
Updated: 2010-06-01 10:26
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For close to 2000 years, bloodletting was one of the most common and least effective ways to treat illnesses. Unfortunately, societies and organizations sometimes adopt practices that don't work, but stubbornly persist in believing that they do.

A Beijing newspaper reported that a stress-busting room where residents can go to hit inflatable dolls opened recently in Jianguomen. Besides two inflatable dolls, the room also has inflatable balls for residents to hurl. The room is promoted as a way people can transfer aggression they may be feeling towards other people or displace frustration they may feel about life in general, to inanimate objects.

According to Li Ping of the Beijing Socio-Psychological Service Center that designed the room, it's the first such room in a residential compound. Let's hope it doesn't take 2000 years to figure out that an "aggression's room" isn't a good way to relieve stress.

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The idea that we dissipate aggression by getting it out on a substitute for the real target of our anger (a psychological concept known as catharsis) has been tested and, as it turns out, doesn't work. In one of the earliest studies of the catharsis hypothesis, people who pounded nails after someone insulted them were more, rather than less, critical of that person afterward..

In their book, "50 Great Myths of Popular Psychology: Shattering Widespread Misconceptions about Human Behavior," authors Scott O. Lilienfeld, Steven Jay Lynn, John Ruscio, and Barry L. Beyerstein cite a variety of controlled trials involving testing the catharsis hypothesis and conclude that individuals' anger increases after they have acted out their substitute aggressions.

Moreover, many studies have concluded that activities like playing violent video games are associated with increased aggression in the laboratory and everyday life.

Hollywood has contributed to our myths about catharsis in films such as "Analyze This," in which psychiatrist Billy Crystal advises New York Gangster Robert De Niro to hit a pillow whenever he's angry. Peter Finch won a posthumous Academy Award in the 1976 movie "Network," for his portrayal of an angry news anchor who urged irate viewers fed up with societal conditions, to release their frustrations by opening their windows and hollering, "I'm mad as hell and I'm not going to take it anymore." In response to his urgings, millions of Americans did just that.

A once popular psychotherapy known as primal scream therapy suggested that psychologically troubled adults should release the emotional pain produced by infant and childhood trauma by discharging this pain by screaming at the top of their lungs.

A news story published by the Association for Psychological Science (APS) suggests where our modern false beliefs about the efficacy of catharsis come from and, no surprise, it's Sigmund Freud. Freud believed that repressed fury could build up and fester, much like steam in a pressure cooker, to the point that it caused psychological conditions like hysteria or trip-wired aggression. The key to therapy and mental health, said Freud, is to dampen the pressure of negative feelings by talking about them and releasing them in a controlled manner in and out of treatment. That makes sense; it just doesn't work.

According to the APS news story, people now practice "Destructotherapy" to relieve office stress. In Spain, men and women destroy junked cars and household items with sledgehammers to the beat of a rock band playing in the background. This "therapy" may have been inspired by the film "Office Space", in which angry workers who hate their jobs and their boss take a copying machine to a field and beat it mercilessly with a baseball bat.

The real problem is when we use bad science regarding catharsis to solve real problems. For example, as a result of a slew of negative publicity brought about by highly publicized worker suicides, the electronics giant Foxconn has reportedly established rooms with punching bags where frustrated employees can go to take out their aggression. Good science teaches us that

Foxconn's "solution" is likely to be about as helpful as offering a drowning man a glass of water.

Perhaps if companies like Foxconn are worried about employees leaping to their deaths from office buildings, they would be better to build suicide barriers outside windows rather than aggression rooms inside them.

The author is a fellow at the American-based Institute for Analytic Journalism and a former psychology teacher who now lives in Beijing and will be teaching law at Tsinghua University this summer.