Have you ever taken Bramitol? No, and you never will. It's a fictional drug that psychologists give to experimental subjects, supposedly as a "mood-freezing" drug, but one that can make people either very aggressive, or unusually non-aggressive.

Waiting for Catharsis

Catharsis is a useful dramatic device but, psychologically speaking, it's useless. It might even be pernicious. People are told that getting all their anger out lets them leave that anger behind. When they try it, they do feel better, but not because they have had a breakthrough that lets them shed their pain and rage. They just feel good because freely expressing anger and aggression feels good. The expression of rage doesn't end after "catharsis." People who vent their anger feel as much anger as they ever did. They just go along their way knowing that it feels good to become aggressive.

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All the idea of catharsis does, then, is futz up psychology experiments. There's no way to be entirely sure whether a given person gets aggressive in experiments because they feel anger or because they are erroneously trying to get the anger out of their system.

Taking Bramitol

The solution that some psychologists came up with is Bramitol. It's vitamin B6. It comes, however, with two different little spiels.

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The first spiel was that Bramitol is a performance enhancer. It has one side effect: it "freezes" people in whatever emotion they happen to be feeling when it takes effect.

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The second spiel is that Bramitol is a performance enhancer, but unlike many other drugs, it has no effect on mood.

One or the other of these spiels was given to people coming to take a psychological test. After an explanation of Bramitol, the psychology subjects were informed they needed the enhancing drug because they would be playing a game with a partner, and the Bramitol was meant to help their reaction time. While they waited for their performance enhancers to kick in, each person read a series of articles. One of those articles was about catharsis. Half the time, the article talked about how catharsis didn't work. The other half of the time, the article reported that it did work.

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Just before the Bramitol "took effect," the participants in the study were asked to write an opinion piece. Their as-yet unseen partner would do the same, and by evaluating each other's work they would get to know each other. The piece was about abortion, because psychologists know how to get people angry. The subjects wrote an argument for whichever side of the issue they agreed with; then they got their partner's opinion to evaluate. The opinion was always contrary to their own, and that difference of opinion showed when they got their evaluated essay back. The partner was abrasive, insulting, and picky.

Getting Payback or Not

Just then the scientists came in, saying that the Bramitol had taken effect. To drive home the point, for the subjects who had been told that Bramitol was a "mood-freezing drug," the scientist stressed that they would stay in the whatever mood they happened to be in for about an hour.

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Then it was payback time. The subjects were told that they would engage in a friendly competition with their partner. In separate rooms, each would watch a cue come up on a screen, and hen they saw it, they would push a button. Whoever pushed the button first would deliver a blast of unpleasant noise to their partner. The subjects could decide how loud and long that noise would be. In other words, they had the option to cut their losses, or get payback.

Those who had read that catharsis was possible cranked up the volume and duration of the sound, punishing their unseen partner — except if they were "mood-frozen" by Bramitol. The people who believed that however useful catharsis might be, Bramitol was going to prevent them from getting it, dialed back the aggression. They let the "punishment sound" be soft and short.

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Meanwhile, the people who had read that catharsis was unhelpful were reluctant to punish their fellow human beings for being obnoxious about abortion. That is, unless they were all amped up on the mood-freezing version of Bramitol. The subjects who believed that Bramitol was a mood-freezer acted out their anger, becoming much more aggressive than the other people in the anti-catharsis group. They made the retaliatory noise loud and prolonged.

This was not the only time Bramitol was used in an experiment. Earlier experimenters convinced people in the efficacy of Bramitol, and promptly made them sad. The subjects then came upon a scene in which a person (really an actor )was in minor trouble. Those subjects who believed their mood was frozen in unhappiness were less likely to help the person than those who hadn't taken Bramitol. If helping others wasn't going to make them feel better, why bother?

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So Bramitol, despite never having existed, made people non-aggressive, more aggressive, or apathetic jerks.

[Via Do People Aggress to Improve Their Mood?]

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