Timothy Caulfield is a Canada Research Chair in Health Law and Policy at the University of Alberta and is author of the new book Relax, Dammit! A User’s Guide to the Age of Anxiety.
The year 2020 has provided us with many things to rant about. Infuriating conspiracy theories. Tone-deaf responses to social justice issues. The U.S. presidential election. A pandemic. Tiger King’s Carole Baskin. (Seriously, she’s on Dancing with the Stars?)
Oh, the rage.
Given all this kindling for indignation, it is no surprise that many of us are feeling the urge to vent. And we should, so the conventional wisdom goes, or we might blow a proverbial gasket. Indeed, ranting is deeply ingrained in our culture. It is portrayed as cathartic! An emotional release! Needed and therapeutic! Let it out, dammit!
Some of the most famous movie scenes are built around the dramatic punch of a good rant. “I’m mad as hell and I’m not going to take this any more” are the 13 words, delivered in an Oscar-worthy holler by Peter Finch, remembered from the 1976 movie Network. Jack Nicholson’s “You can’t handle the truth” is, for me, the only thing that remains of 1992′s A Few Good Men. (I also have a vague memory of Demi Moore being skeptical of Tom Cruise’s lawyering skills, but then not.) And it seems like virtually every single TV or movie psychologist, psychiatrist, therapist, marriage counsellor, or understanding best friend has advised a struggling protagonist to face his/her anger and take a cathartic step toward emotional resolution (in other words, rant).
Ranting has probably been around as long as there have been annoying humanoids worthy of a rant. But social media has kicked ranting into the stratosphere, offering boundless opportunities for creative bursts of fury. Now we can rant to thousands (or, if you are a celebrity, millions) and directly at the social-media incarnations of the entities that infuriate us – airlines, insurance agencies and the government (enough with the chemtrails!).
In fact, 46 per cent of Twitter users admit that they use the platform to simply vent (often at me) and as a way to deal with anger. Research has consistently found that negative social-media posts (and, no surprise, social media is getting consistently more negative) spread faster and further than positive ones. One study, with the depressing title “Anger Is More Influential Than Joy,” examined more than 70 million tweets and found that, yep, anger spreads faster than other emotions.
So, when you feel that “I’m not gonna take it any more” rage about, say, the person who stole your parking spot or a particularly offensive missive in your social-media feed, is a good public rant in order? Will ranting make you feel better?
The answer is almost always the same: no.
Sigmund Freud deserves much of the credit for the catharsis myth. Core to his now almost completely discredited psychoanalytic belief system was the idea that getting our anger out was good for, or even essential to, our psychological well-being. For Freud, catharsis was a way to relieve stress and unconscious conflicts. The cultural sway of Freud should not be underestimated. Although he did much to facilitate the secular exploration of the mind, his pronouncements were rarely, if ever, supported by empirical evidence. Nevertheless, his ideas continue to have tremendous cultural traction. (Thanks to Freud, will a cigar ever be just a cigar?) Almost any theory that suggests suppressed emotions can have an adverse effect on our physical and mental health flows directly or in part from Freud’s writings on catharsis and the unconscious mind.
Many religions have also embraced catharsis to some degree. While elements of forgiveness and repentance make such rituals more than mere ranting, religious commentators have noted that practices such as the confessional are linked with the idea of catharsis. A 2009 paper published in the Canadian Family Physician, authored by a physician and a priest, speculated on the therapeutic benefits of confession. “Even without delving into the theology of confession, its cathartic nature is evident. Uninterrupted, the penitent confesses until his or her list is exhausted.”
From the perspective of therapy, probably the best-known, full-on rant-focused approach is the primal scream. This therapy became popular in the 1970s and involved screaming at the top of your lungs, outbursts of extreme emotions and hitting stuff. It was made popular by psychologist Arthur Janov and his bestselling 1970 book, The Primal Scream. Many celebrities, among them John Lennon, were ardent followers of the method. Indeed, it is has been suggested that Lennon’s first solo album, Plastic Ono Band, was inspired by his experience with primal scream therapy.
More recently, the idea of holding in your anger or emotions has been portrayed as a disease risk, something that could manifest itself in a tangible way, such as a tumour. Many alternative-medicine practitioners have embraced the idea that bottled-up “toxic emotions” can cause a range of ailments. For example, a website associated with a healing and spiritual awareness centre claims that “cancer is caused by the suppression of toxic emotions; primarily anger, hate, resentment and grief.”
Given all this pseudoscientific mumbo-jumbo, it is no surprise that many people believe that pent-up emotions can result in cancer. A 2018 study that explored people’s beliefs about the causes of cancer found that 43 per cent of those surveyed said they believed stress causes cancer. This was, as the authors note, the most commonly endorsed “mythical cancer cause.” A 2015 study from South Korea came to a similar conclusion, finding that the “most important perceived cause of cancer risk was stress.”
Don’t get me wrong, stress can affect our health – especially the kind of chronic stress associated with things such as poverty and a lack of security. But, as noted by the National Cancer Institute, “the evidence that it can cause cancer is weak.”
But more relevant to a decision about whether to rant or not to rant: There is no science to support the idea that releasing your bottled-up rage in a cathartic burst is a helpful strategy for emotional or physical well-being. The idea of purging anger may have intuitive appeal, but a raging e-mail, tweet, Facebook post or graphic Instagram picture isn’t a good way to deal with stress. On the contrary, it generally makes things worse.
We have known this for decades. Take, for example, a 2002 study with the title “Does Venting Anger Feed or Extinguish the Flame?” This study, which has since been replicated many times, found that using various strategies to vent anger, including punching a bag and blowing a loud horn at the person who was the source of the anger, did not help. In fact, the study found that “doing nothing at all was more effective than venting anger” and that the results “directly contradict catharsis theory.” Ranting does not quell the anger, relieve stress, or make the ranter feel more emotionally stable. In fact, it has the opposite effect. It makes people feel more aggressive.
Researchers have also explored the phenomenon of online ranting. A 2013 study, for example, found that reading and writing online rants – particularly on sites dedicated to the practice, known as rant-sites – was “associated with negative shifts in mood.” The researchers found that, in the short term, ranters felt better. So, although there is an immediate psychological reward for the action, in the long term, people felt worse.
Ranting is the junk food of emotional responses. A tasty McRant provides us with immediate satisfaction, but, with the passage of time, we often regret our behaviour and might even feel a bit sick about it. One survey found that 57 per cent of Americans have posted something that they later regret.
And like junk food, ranting might also be bad for our physical health. Studies have associated myocardial infarctions (a.k.a. heart attacks) with “outbursts of anger”; and the greater the intensity of the anger, the greater the relative risks. Think about that the next time someone tells you to let it all out.
Given that ranting and, more broadly, the entire idea of catharsis have never been supported by science, they have had a remarkable cultural run. While we don’t hear much about primal scream therapy any more, belief in the basic concept appears undiminished. What’s going on?
There are many reasons for the enduring appeal – including the pop culture embrace of the theory and the mere fact that, short term, it feels good. But I think the biggest reason is simply a broad collective hunch that the concept of catharsis is correct. It is an elegant idea that accords with our view of how the world works. And it lends itself to the use of persuasive metaphors – the unhealthy festering of bottled-up rage – that reinforce the idea’s intuitive attraction.
This is a good reminder that just because something feels right – and feels good – doesn’t mean it works. This is, of course, one of the reasons we turn to science. And in the context of venting, the science tells us to stop.
So, let’s say no to the rant. It doesn’t help and the world really doesn’t need the negativity right now. I’m going to try to make 2021 more about “thank you” and less about “F you.”
(But seriously, Carole Baskin on DWTS? WTF?)
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