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Catharsis Theory and Media Effects

violent violence viewing smoking

Is viewing violence cathartic? The large amount of violence in the mass media is often justified by the concept of catharsis. The word catharsis comes from the Greek word katharsis , which literally translated means “a cleansing or purging.” The first recorded mention of catharsis occurred more than one thousand years ago, in the work Poetics by Aristotle. Aristotle taught that viewing tragic plays gave people emotional release ( katharsis ) from negative feelings such as pity, fear, and anger. By watching the characters in the play experience tragic events, the negative feelings of the viewer were presumably purged and cleansed. This emotional cleansing was believed to be beneficial to both the individual and society.

The ancient notion of catharsis was revived by Sigmund Freud and his associates. For example, A. A. Brill, the psychiatrist who introduced the psychoanalytic techniques of Freud to the United States, prescribed that his patients watch a prize fight once a month to purge their angry, aggressive feelings into harmless channels.

Catharsis theory did not die with Aristotle and Freud. Many directors and producers of violent media claim that their products are cathartic. For example, Alfred Hitchcock, director of the movie Psycho , said, “One of television’s greatest contributions is that it brought murder back into the home where it belongs. Seeing a murder on television can be good therapy. It can help work off one’s antagonism.” More recently, in 1992, Paul Verhoeven, director of the movie Total Recall , said, “I think it’s a kind of purifying experience to see violence.”

The producers of violent computer games, like the producers of violent films, claim that their products are cathartic. For example, Sega Soft has created an online network containing violent games that claims to provide users an outlet for the “primal human urge to kill.” In promotional materials for the fictional CyberDivision movement, the imaginary founder Dr. Bartha says, “We kill. It’s OK. It’s not our fault any more than breathing or urinating.” Dr. Bartha claims that aggressive urges and impulses can be purged by playing violent video games. “It’s a marketing campaign,” said a SegaSoft spokesperson, “but there is some validity to the concept that you need an outlet for aggressive urges.” Some people who play violent computer games, such as the following thirty-year-old video game player, agree: “When the world pisses you off and you need a place to vent, Quake [a violent video game] is a great place for it. You can kill somebody and watch the blood run down the walls, and it feels good. But when it’s done, you’re rid of it.”

What do the scientific data say about the effects of viewing violence? Do violent media decrease or increase aggressive and violent behavior? Social scientists have been very interested in this question since the late 1960s. The results from hundreds of studies have converged on the conclusion that viewing violence increases aggression. In fact, the U.S. Surgeon General came to this conclusion as early as 1972. The scientific evidence is overwhelming on this point. Viewing violence is definitely not cathartic—it increases rather than decreases anger and subsequent aggression.

Brad Bushman and his colleagues recently compared media violence effects with effects from other fields, and the results are displayed in Figure 1. A correlation can range from -1 to +1, with -1 indicating a perfect negative relation and +1 indicating a perfect positive relation. As the figure shows, all of the correlations for the studied effects are significantly different from zero. Note, however, that the second largest correlation is for violent media and aggression. Most people would agree that the other correlations displayed in Figure 1 are so strong that they are obvious. For example, most people would not question the assertion that taking calcium increases bone mass or that wearing a condom decreases the risk of contracting HIV, the virus that causes AIDS.

The correlation between media violence and aggression is only slightly smaller than that between smoking and lung cancer. Not everyone who smokes gets lung cancer, and not everyone who gets lung cancer is a smoker. But even the tobacco industry agrees that smoking causes lung cancer. Smoking is not the only factor that causes lung cancer, but it is an important factor. Similarly, not everyone who watches violent media becomes aggressive, and not everyone who is aggressive watches violent media. Watching violent media is not the only factor that causes aggression, but it is an important factor.

The smoking analogy is useful in other respects. Like a first cigarette, the first violent movie seen can make a person nauseous. Later, however, one craves more and more. The effects of smoking and viewing violence are both cumulative. Smoking one cigarette probably will not cause lung cancer. Likewise, seeing one violent movie probably will not turn a person into a psychopathic killer. However, repeated exposure to both cigarettes and violent media can have harmful consequences.

Catharsis theory is elegant and highly plausible, but it is false. It justifies and perpetuates the myth that viewing violence is healthy and beneficial, when in fact viewing violence is unhealthy and detrimental. After reviewing the scientific research, Carol Tavris (1988) concluded, “It is time to put a bullet, once and for all, through the heart of the catharsis hypothesis. The belief that observing violence (or ‘ventilating it’) gets rid of hostilities has virtually never been supported by research.”

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