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Sorry, But Venting Online Just Makes You Angrier, Scientists Find

Friends don't let friends email angry.

FIONA MACDONALD
15 AUG 2015
 

In today's interconnected world, we've all done it. The scenario could be anything: you receive bad service, get a terrible meal, or are mistreated by a friend. Understandably, you're angry. Actually, more than that, you're really pissed off. The more you think about it, the angrier you get, so you decide the best thing to do is unleash all that vitriol in written form - maybe a carefully crafted email or an online review - and release it out into the world. It's cathartic, almost healing, right?

 

Actually no. Research has shown that venting can actually make us feel worse. And as Brad Bushman, a professor of psychology and communication at the Ohio State University in the US told Elizabeth Bernstein from The Wall Street Journal this week, the ease with which we rant on the Internet is making us angrier than ever.

"Just because something makes you feel better doesn’t mean it’s healthy," said Bushman, explaining that many people still have the misconception that it's always better to get things off your chest than to bottle them up.

So what's so bad about venting? Back in 2002, Bushman set up an experiment where he asked 600 students to write a heated essay about abortion. The students were told that another classmate would mark their essays to make the process fair, but in reality, Bushman simply wrote scathing and unjustified feeback on all of them. 

Understandably, the authors were angry, and Bushman asked them to deal with this in different ways. Some of them hit a punching bag while thinking about the person who marked their essay, another group simply hit a punching bag while thinking about getting fit, and then a third control group just sat quietly and did nothing - essentially 'bottling it up'.

Conventional wisdom would tell you that those who had already 'let all their anger out' would feel better. But after the exercise, the group that unleashed their anger on the punching bag reported feeling the most angry, hostile, and irritated, and the group that did nothing were the least aggressive, the research found.

Bushman isn't the only one who's come to this conclusion. In 2007, a team of researchers reviewed all of the research on anger expression dating back to 1959, and found no scientific support that venting makes people feel better. In fact, the review concluded that unleashing our anger "directly challenges the integrity of mental health practice and places the public at risk".

One of the lead authors of that review was Jeffrey Lohr, a psychologist from the University of Arkansas, who came up with possibly my favourite analogy ever: 

"People don’t break wind in elevators more than they have to," Lohr told Stephanie Vozza from Fast Company. "Venting anger is an emotional expression. It’s similar to emotional farting in a closed area. It sounds like a good idea, but it’s dead wrong."

OK we get it, venting is bad. But why is unleashing online so much worse? As Bushman told Bernstein over at the Wall Street Journal, when we write bad reviews or angry emails, we're tricked into thinking that no one will ever read them - we're expressing our emotions in the comfort of our own homes, often in our pyjamas or from bed, and there's no voice on the other end of the line or upset face staring back at us to keep our comments in check.

And even though we all vented to friends before we had the Internet, doing it in person or over the phone requires you to wait until the other person is free to chat - which is usually long enough for you to cool down slightly.

In fact, a 2013 study showed that regular users of online rant sites are more prone to anger IRL too, and take part in more negative and rage-driven behaviours such as reckless driving.

So what's the alternative? "Turn off your computer or phone until your anger has subsided," writes Bernstein for The Wall Street Journal. "You might even consider blocking a person’s phone number temporarily, so that you won’t be tempted to text or email."

"What people fail to realise is that the anger would have dissipated had they not vented," Lohr told Fast Company. "Moreover, it would have dissipated more quickly had they not vented and tried to control their anger instead."

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