Serenity now! Is there room in the modern urban landscape to carve out special spaces for venting anger?
By Kevin Bennett, Assistant Teaching Professor of Psychology and Director of the Personality and Human Performance Lab (PHPL) at The Pennsylvania State University, Beaver Campus, USA
Recent news reports have documented an increase in the number of 'rage rooms'/'anger rooms', across the globe. Corporate franchises and smaller companies have opened rage centers in Germany, Italy, Hong Kong, Atlanta, Philadelphia and many other locations catering mostly to a younger, educated, metropolitan demographic.
The demand is real. Between school, work, terrorism, bullying, debt, and urban frustration, there is a lot to worry about. According to the most recent data from NAMI (National Alliance on Mental Illness), the United States alone is home 42 million people who are battling anxiety disorders (18% of the population). Additionally, frustration is a real emotion that everybody feels from time to time - frequently when someone or something is in conflict with a goal. This “strategic interference,” as evolutionary psychologists call it, pops up all over the urban landscape. For example, the vending machine might provide strategic interference to the delivery of a cold beverage, your boss might interfere with your plan to relax on the weekend by telling you to come to work on Saturday, or your objectives for the day are delayed because of interference provided by heavy traffic. Rage rooms are clearly gaining in popularity, but the long term psychological benefits have yet to be measured.
The value of aggression
From an evolutionary standpoint, there were certainly times in our ancestral past when physical confrontation was the quickest solution to a problem, and may have been adaptive in specific contexts. Resource protection, romantic rivals, and status negotiations all stand out as likely adaptive problems that gave rise to aggression as a behavioral solution. However, we don’t live in that ancestral environment anymore. We live in a modern world – often overcrowded and urban – where the adaptive solutions of the past don’t always match up with the adaptive problems we confront today.
Many people still subscribe to the “aggression as a pressure cooker” model of human behavior. According to this, if you do not let off some steam, or release your aggression in a timely manner, it will manifest itself in unseemly, even dangerous ways: do not hold it in for too long or you will eventually suffer a menacing episode. Hence, the rage room. For a few bucks you can spend time liberating pent up hostility by annihilating coffee cups with a baseball bat. It certainly sounds fun, but does it work?
Illustration of a cast iron pressure cooker with pot and lid, circa 1890. Photo Courtesy of Pixabay.
Here is the issue that some psychologists have with these spaces: when you spend time thumping an inanimate object, like a pillow, or beating non-living things in a 'rage room', you may be conditioning yourself to act aggressively the next time your anxiety levels rise. So instead of opening up the escape valve on a pot of steam, you are rewarding your distressed feelings with the ephemeral pleasure that comes from throwing dishes against a wall.
Rage rooms offer a place for people to act on their felt impulse to become physically violent without the mess or costs that comes with breaking their own possessions. Is this a good prescription for chronic rages? And should urban designers even consider creating controlled environments in which the singular objective is to get out aggression? Consider some research on the efficacy of catharsis.
Does Catharsis Work?
In a classic paper, Bushman, Baumeister, and Stack (1999) explored the success of aggressive catharsis across two social psychology experiments. In study 1, participants who read a persuasive message that aggression is a healthy way to relax and reduce anger (pro-catharsis message) expressed a greater desired to hit a punching bag than did individuals who read an anti-catharsis message.
In study 2, participants read the same messages before they all hit a real punching bag. Following this, everyone was given an opportunity to act aggressively in a laboratory setting. Those who read the pro-catharsis message and then hit the punching bag were more aggressive in the laboratory condition than people who read the anti-catharsis message. This casts doubt on the catharsis hypothesis that carrying out aggressive acts on safe objects effectively reduces aggression. If anything, the trend is towards an increase in aggression following catharsis.
More research is needed
The broader societal question is: does long term exposure to aggression alongside persuasive messages that endorse aggression result in an increase in real-life aggression? It is too early to draw any conclusions about modern day rage rooms. Most research on catharsis has taken place in controlled laboratory conditions and it is not clear how well the results generalize to current commercially-available rage rooms. Here would be a great spot for some well-designed longitudinal studies that look at the complicated interactions between frustration in urban settings, specially designed anger rooms, and the power of aggressive catharsis.
Urban designers and mental health professionals are interested in identifying acceptable frustration levels in cities, as well as understanding the specific ways in which the built environment creates unhealthy feelings of anxiety and anger. The complete elimination of aggression in society may be unattainable, given the complexities of human desires and the nearly constant competition between people to meet goals. On the other hand, we should be careful before endorsing aggression just because it is dressed up as a fun afternoon demolishing toys, windows, and the kitchen sink.
Bennett, K. (2017). Adaptive function of aggression. In Zeigler-Hill, V., & Shackelford, T.K. (eds.), Encyclopedia of Personality and Individual Differences. Springer International Publishing AG. doi:10.1007/978-3-319-28099-8_1597-1
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), 367-376. http://psycnet.apa.org/doiLanding?doi=10.1037%2F0022-35126.96.36.199
About the Author
Sanity and Urbanity: