Emotional Catharsis and Aggression Revisited: Heart Rate Reduction Following Aggressive Responding

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Abstract

The authors tested two components of the catharsis theory of aggression: physiological tension reduction and aggressive drive reduction. On the basis of work in the stress-aggression literature, they also examined the moderating effect of impersonal stress exposure on cathartic reductions in heart rate following aggressive responding. Participants were instructed to administer nonaggressive (correct button) or aggressive (shock button) responses to a frustrating confederate in a laboratory aggression paradigm, and half the participants were exposed to an impersonal stressor (aversive air blasts) during the procedure. Heart rate was recorded before and after the participants administered the aggressive or nonaggressive response. Analyses revealed that participants exhibited reductions in heart rate following aggressive but not nonaggressive responding, but this was the case only for those not exposed to the impersonal stressor. Heart rate reductions during the experimental blocks actually predicted the most intense aggression in a subsequent block of trials. The results are considered in light of different theories of aggression by J. E. Hokanson (1974) and L. Berkowitz (1990) and have implications for interventions with anger-prone individuals.

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