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There are many different interpretations of catharsis, although the original usage seems to be from a debate between Plato and Aristotle

"In the secondary literature it is possible to distinguish between at least six different groups of interpretations:

  • medical interpretations and interpretations of catharsis as a natural process of discharge/release or outlet of emotions
  • catharsis conceived of as emotional and intellectual clarification
  • moral interpretations, including interpretations of catharsis as an education of the emotions
  • catharsis conceived of as the experience of emotional relief
  • aesthetic interpretations or interpretations of a dramatic or structural nature
  • complex or ‘holistic’ interpretations of catharsis"

"According to J. Hardy (Hardy, 1932, p. 16) there is no passage in Greek literature more famous than the ten words of the Poetics where the notion of catharsis is dramatically depicted as interrelated with the painful emotions of pity (eleos) and fear or terror (phobos). The passage which throughout the centuries has given rise to such ‘‘a deluge of works’’ (German: ‘‘Flut von Schriften’’, Gudemann, 1934, p. 167), reads as follows:3

Tragedy is a representation of a serious, complete action which has magnitude, in embellished speech, with each of its elements [used] separately in the [various] parts [of the play]; [represented] by people acting and not by narration; accomplishing by means of pity and terror the catharsis of such emotions. By ‘embellished speech’, I mean that which has rhythm and melody, i.e. song; by ‘with its elements separately’, I mean that some [parts of] are accomplished only by means of spoken verses, and others again by means of song.

In the secondary literature no substantial consensus has been reached as regards the exact meaning Aristotle attributes to ‘catharsis’ in his definition"

"What Flashar’s approach reveals to us is the abundance of medical conceptions and forms of explanation in the core of Aristotle’s general theory of emotions. Consequently, tragic catharsis continues to mean ‘clearing away’, though not any longer in the sense of ‘‘emotional pathology’’ advocated by Bernays (Bernays, 1857/1979, p. 159), but in the psychosomatic sense informed by Aristotle’s general theory of emotions, i.e. of a normal process of discharge of the emotions. As observed by Lear, support for such an interpretation may also be drawn from the fact that Aristotle’s most frequent use of ‘catharsis’ is in relation to forms of discharge characteristic of normally functioning bodies, i.e. of menstrual discharge, of seminal discharge as well as of discharge of urine (Lear, 1992, p. 315).6"[1]

Catharsis is generally believed to be beneficial by medical students

"Catharsis can be defined as a complex set of psychosomatic processes by means of which the human being becomes piu^ed of an overload of distress due to the cumulative frustration of basic human needs it is thus a peculiarly human phenomenon, attributable to a somatic being with capacities for love, understanding and self-direction (Heron 1977)

There are numerous definitions of catharsis which diverge from the current divisions within catharsis theory"

"Catharsis is beneficial As much as 95% of students accepted that expressing emotion was beneficial, whereas some qualified nurses (19%) questioned its value An overall X^2 for all the results in the group was conducted with the result of a strong relationship (x^ = 27 08, d f =12, P<0 01) for the level of training (Q5) and the beliefs held about catharsis as beneficial (Q7, Q9, Qll, Q16 and Q22)"

"There is a distinction between the understanding of the terms 'release of emotion' and 'expression of emotion'. This IS to some extent a subtle distinction"[2]

Concentrating on why you feel certain things has better results than reliving them

"We have suggested that unconstrained thought about affect-laden things often results in making cognitions more consistent with the initial affect. Since affect is, in turn, at least partially determined by one's beliefs, the result is more extreme feelings. Presumably, this occurred in the Catharsis condition since the induction used is similar to manipulations used in previous attitude-polarization research. On the other hand, in the Process Constraint condition subjects were asked why they believe as they do about speaking in public. Recall that we also assumed that the process by which thought affects beliefs is usually not logical. Forcing subjects to focus on the bases of their beliefs may produce an awareness of the illogicality of the process. This, presumably, renders the product of the process less plausible, thereby reducing the affect. It should be noted that in this condition, no explicit attempts were made to change any specific beliefs. Therefore, any change in beliefs that did occur was mediated by the subjects' own cognitive work on those beliefs."[3]

Studies on aggression should be taken with a grain of salt due to the nature of security

"In the absence of a definition, the critics have felt free to define it in any way they please. Their definitions have usually been quite tangential to the proponent’s arguments. The central example is the series of experiments conducted by Berkowitz (1962). But Berkowitz and others have tested the hypothesis that catharsis occurs through aggressive behaviour. In a typical study, he has shown that active retaliation against an aggressor not only does not lower the level of hostility of the person who is retaliating but may actually raise it. Although this seems to be an important finding, its relevance to the argument about catharsis is nil. Neither Aristotle’s doctrine nor Freud and Breuer’s technique concerns behaviour. Both dramatic and psychotherapeutic theories involve the reexperiencing of past emotional crises in the context of complete security: in the safety of the theatre or the therapist’s office. Catharsis in these contexts is analogous to Wordsworth’s definition of poetry-emotion recollected in tranquillity. The extension of catharsis to include aggressive retaliation is unwarranted."[4]

Being aggressive produces more aggression, not relaxation

"In general, empirical findings have been inconsistent with the catharsis hypothesis (see reviews by Geen & Quanty, 1977, and Warren & Kurlychek, 1981). Tavris. (1988) concluded that "it is time to put a bullet, once and for all, through heart of the catharsis hypothesis. The belief that observing violence (or 'ventilating it') gets rid of hostilities has virtually never been supported by research" (p. 194). Because activities considered to be cathartic also are aggressive, they could lead to the activation of other aggressive thoughts, emotions, and behavioral tendencies, which in turn could lead to greater anger and aggression (Berkowitz, 1984; Tice & Baumeister, 1993)."

"Correlation analysis was performed to determine the relations among the three dependent measures (i.e., desire to hit the punching bag, enjoyment of hitting the punching bag, and interpersonal aggression) for participants who hit the punching bag. As can be seen in Table 3, desire to hit the punching bag and enjoyment of hitting the punching bag were positively correlated with interpersonal aggression. In addition, angered participants who wanted to hit the punching bag also enjoyed hitting it more. These results contradict any suggestion that hitting the punching bag would have beneficial effects because one might feel better after doing so (which is what advocates of catharsis often say)."[5]

Angry impulses are not reduced by acting aggressively

"Although our emphasis has been on whether people believe that aggressing and venting anger can lead to improvement in their mood, there is also some interest in the question of whether these beliefs might be justified. Our measure of mood was obtained immediately after the aggressive opportunity, and so we can see whether people who believe that aggression improves their mood would actually report better moods afterward. The findings are mixed. The data on negative affect and hostility showed that people who believe in the value of venting actually felt worse after aggression, as compared with other people. This finding is directly opposite to what one would expect on the basis of a belief in the efficacy of venting.

On the other hand, the data on positive affect provide some signs that aggression can produce a good mood, although these should be regarded with extreme caution, particularly because they differ by gender. Women reported lower positive affect following aggression in the mood-freeze condition than in the changeable mood condition, which suggests that aggression does improve a woman's mood as long as she believes her mood is open to change. Women's own prior beliefs about the efficacy of venting apparently made no difference. Men's beliefs did moderate how they were affected by aggression, but ironically the men who most believed in the efficacy of venting reported the least amount of positive affect after aggressing (in the changeable mood condition). The effects of aggressing on the aggressor's mood appear to depend on a complex interplay of gender, prior beliefs about venting, and probably several other factors. Further work may be required before a full understanding of the effects of aggression on mood can emerge.

The mood findings do converge with findings about the catharsis hypothesis. Most studies have found that angry impulses and hostile tendencies are not reduced by acting aggressively (see Geen & Quanty, 1977, for review). On the other hand, we have found that angry people did positively enjoy some of the cathartic activities, such as hitting a punching bag (Bushman et al., 1999). Aggressive activity may therefore be relatively useless at getting rid of negative affect even though in some cases it may increase positive affect. Perhaps this is why the belief in catharsis and venting survives today despite all the contrary research findings. Aggression does occasionally create positive emotions, and some people may find those instances to be sufficient to sustain their belief that they will feel better if they vent their anger"[6]

More anger research

"This research suggests that anger is not something that builds up inside like steam, and that can be vented or automatically dissipated through expression. In contrast I will suggest that anger expression only leads to "emotional relief" under certain conditions. From this I will propose a ' 'cognitive explanation for the times when emotional expression does lead to relief"[7] sidenote -- "hydraulic model" is proposed name for venting pressure and purgation theory is elsewhere


  1. Solbakk, J. H. (2006). Catharsis and moral therapy II: An Aristotelian account. Medicine, Health Care and Philosophy, 9(2), 141-153.
  2. Kettles, A. M. (1994). Catharsis: an investigation of its meaning and nature. Journal of advanced nursing, 20(2), 368-376.
  3. Tesser, A., Leone, C., & Clary, E. G. (1978). Affect control: Process constraints versus catharsis. Cognitive Therapy and Research, 2(3), 265-274.
  4. Geen, R. G., & Quanty, M. B. (1977). The Catharsis of Aggression: An Evaluation of a Hypothesis1. In Advances in experimental social psychology (Vol. 10, pp. 1-37). Academic Press.
  5. Bushman, B. J., Baumeister, R. F., & Stack, A. D. (1999). Catharsis, aggression, and persuasive influence: Self-fulfilling or self-defeating prophecies?. Journal of personality and social psychology, 76(3), 367.
  6. Bushman, B. J., Baumeister, R. F., & Phillips, C. M. (2001). Do people aggress to improve their mood? Catharsis beliefs, affect regulation opportunity, and aggressive responding. Journal of personality and social psychology, 81(1), 17.
  7. Bohart, A. C. (1980). Toward a cognitive theory of catharsis. Psychotherapy: Theory, Research & Practice, 17(2), 192.