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SO. I’ve been reading a book about cognitive dissonance. Now, as anyone who knows me can tell you, the point in time when I’m reading a book about something is a very dangerous time to start me talking about it. So let’s start with the first of my caps-lock goals.

WHAT IS CATHARSIS? WELL,  ACCORDING TO MY RESEARCH, Catharsis is derived from the Greek verb meaning ‘to purge.’ If you know what I mean.

NO, but seriously. Catharsis is a process. In psychology, which I’m going to pretend is the only field in which ‘catharsis’ is used, catharsis has a rather psychoanalytic root as the outlet of long-repressed emotions that had not previously been dealt with. In a more modern sense, and in the manner in which I am concerned with today, catharsis also refers to the release of emotional tension in the form of a physical action (e.g. shouting, hitting things, slamming doors). NOW, catharsis has a weakness built into it, rather in the manner of a spell in a video game. It lowers your current level of agitation, in most cases, immediately. However, that reduction of arousal can serve as a reinforcement. This leads the brain to the conclusion that the best way to blow off steam is TO START YELLING AT EVERYONE. Or punch a wall, Hulk-style. Eventually, YELLING AT PEOPLE IS THE DEFAULT, instead of a more passive method of anger management.

ANOTHER DANGER OF AGGRESSION (venting), aside from the fact that people who aggressively vent their feelings often become more aggressive in the long term, is linked to the theory of cognitive dissonance.

Cognitive dissonance, by the way, is the state of holding conflicting beliefs simultaneously. For example, holding the belief “Castle is a really silly show,” and at the same time holding the belief “I REALLY LOVE CASTLE STANA KATIC ARUGFHWRAUGNRHAGL.”


Cognitive dissonance can be dealt with in several ways, but it usually must be dealt with, because it’s uncomfortable to hold two conflicting beliefs (such as “I should do homework; it’s one in the morning” and “I am playing Skyrim and it’s awesome”). The usual result of cognitive dissonance is self-justification. (“I don’t really need to do that homework anyway. I’m caught up.”) (Or, conversely, “Skyrim isn’t that great. My homework is more important!)

So, short version:

Whenever we do something that causes a conflict in our beliefs, we tend to justify our chosen course of action. And when we’ve justified it once, we can justify it again, a bit more easily. See where this is going?

Imagine an individual who engages in catharsis as a means of blowing off steam. Whenever anger, stress, disappointment, etc. raises its ugly head, the result is…(rolls d20) yelling. At anything nearby. Family members, pets, inanimate objects, household appliances, neighbors, children, aliens, crab people, dragonborn, vegetation, interior designers, erasers, sock puppets—anything and everything is open season when this individual wants to blow off steam. But.

Then our imaginary individual (let’s call him Bob, because Raxocoricofallopatorius is too long a name) yells at someone and (inconceivable!) their feelings get hurt.

And let’s say it was someone who Bob didn’t want to injure, like a dog. Or a landscape designer. Or a friend! Well, then Bob experiences THE HORROR OF COGNITIVE DISSONANCE. OH GOD. And he may come to one of two conclusions: catharsis should continue, or catharsis should stop. Catharsis tends to be self-perpetuating.

If Bob continues his catharsis, this decision will be supported and justified (it’s important to let out my feelings. I shouldn’t hide what I feel. They should be able to handle a little yelling. They deserved it anyway). And then the next time it happens, it will be reinforced. Again and again. And Bob will descend into a cycle of loud anger wherein he becomes more and more trigger-happy with the shouting until someone points out the spiral, of which Bob (thanks to the nature of the brain) is probably not even aware.

This is a slight bummer of a scenario. So what’s the takeaway here? Well, first off, JESUS WAS RIGHT. As he says (roughly translated) “if someone strikes you on the right cheek, don’t yell at him, dude, chill bro, don’t go and bust a cap in his ass, turn the other cheek to him also and just be cool, man.”

IN OTHER WORDS, aggression provoked by hostility reinforces itself. Anger leads to hate, hate leads to suffering and OH GOD YODA WAS RIGHT TOO.

NOW, this is of course an example of what we like to call science, which is, depending on your definition, “all the things we know for sure,” or “what we can prove,” or “our compiled system of knowledge of the universe.” Which of course means that this may all be full of crap. BUT.

What’s the takeaway? Well, the takeaway of the book I’m reading, which is REALLY ENTERTAINING (and which is called Mistakes Were Made, But Not By Me) seems so far to be that self-justification is a continual part of our lives, and that we can only conquer our tendencies to reinforce our worse decisions by continual awareness of human fallibility.

In other words—the next time you do something that your brain twinges at, hesitate. Think twice. Remove yourself from the situation as much as possible (how much that is possible is a debate for another time). And don’t do the aggressive catharsis thing. When you’re angry, don’t punch a wall. Don’t take it out on ceiling fans, on radios, on computers or your dog. Instead, do something constructive. Play an instrument. Plant a flower. Walk the path of peace.

But don’t listen to me—do your own thing. Because that’s what everyone is really trying to do in the end, isn’t it? Do their own thing?

Until next time, internet people.


One Comment

  1. I quite enjoyed this entry.
    As I do most all of them.

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