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In 1972, Michael Crichton published The Terminal Man. In it, a man with a particular form of epilepsy is finally getting treatment. Whenever he is about to have a seizure, electrodes in his brain will stimulate his pleasure centers and, hopefully, ease him out of the seizure behavior. The “seizure behavior” is extreme violence executed with extraordinary strength. The chip is implanted. It works. And all the people around this man quickly learn that giving someone a mind-cookie every time they are about to have a violent attack is not a good idea. The pleasure at the onset of every violent episode causes the man to commit more and more acts of violence.
In this novel, it seems obvious that it's rarely a good idea to reward violent behavior. But often, we do exactly that. Whenever we “vent,” or try to act out in some dramatic way in order to experience “catharsis,” we are giving ourselves a great big cookie for responding violently to violent emotions. Many of us have seen others, or ourselves, get worked up over some past injustice. It feels good to punch a wall or scream and yell. And we rationalize it as “getting it out of our system.” But of course we’re not getting anything out of our system; we’re just doing something that feels good every time we feel a bad emotion.
One psychologist, Brad Bushman, set up an experiment to show how this reward system works. He asked a group of students to write an essay about abortion, knowing that the topic would get people emotional. The students were told that a fellow student would grade their paper. Instead, the paper came back with, “This is one of the worst essays I have ever read,” written across it. The combination of insult and implied moral criticism was sure to get students mad. The group was then divided into two subsections. One subsection was told to go ahead and let it out by punching a pillow. The other was told to sit quietly for two minutes.
To check how these techniques worked, Bushman introduced what can only be called the revenge section of the experiment. The student was told that they could either punch a button and make the other person listen to a harsh tone or wait to hear the tone themselves. Whoever punched the button first would have to listen to the harsh noise. The catch was, the students themselves could set the decibel level for the tone they were giving to the other student. So they had the option to defuse the situation by picking a soft tone, hitting the button first, and causing no harm to either one of them.
Despite the idea that cathartically “letting it all out” would relieve people of their anger, the people who punched the pillow set the volume level higher than those who just sat quietly. Similar results were found when the students were asked to set an amount of hot sauce that their imaginary counterpart would have to eat. The punchers set it high.
In fact, Bushman found that even dwelling on personal emotions tended to cause people to be angrier. In this experiment Bushman had two people – actually one real subject and one imaginary partner who supposedly was working remotely – complete a lab assignment together. The imaginary partner yelled at the real subject. Some subjects were asked to think about their emotions. Others were asked to think about the emotions as if they were happening to other people. The second group felt a lot less anger than the first.
What we like and what actually works, it turns out, are two separate things. We convince ourselves that we feel better if we vent everything or if we think about what turbulent emotions mean. Of course we do. Getting good and angry and throwing a tantrum feels good. But it’s not soothing us or cleansing us of negative emotions. It’s just letting us know that we get a little rage cookie whenever we get angry. And, let’s face it, few of us need incentives to get angry.