Catharsis theory has played an important role in the discussion about the effects of violence in the mass media for many years. The term “catharsis” is derived from the Greek katharsis which means cleansing, purging, or purification. In the form the theory is used in communication research, it implies that the execution of an aggressive action under certain conditions diminishes the aggressive drive and therefore reduces the likelihood of further aggressive actions. The crucial point in catharsis theory is that the observed aggressive action does not necessarily need to be executed in reality – it can instead take place in the actor’s fantasy or in the media (symbolic catharsis).
Seymour Feshbach, key proponent of the catharsis theory in communication research, distinguishes between three conceptions of catharsis: the Dramatic, the Clinical, and the Experimental models. The Dramatic model goes back to Aristotle who used the term “catharsis” in his Poetics to describe an effect of the Greek tragedy on its spectator: by viewing tragic plays the spectator’s own anxieties are put outward and purged in a socially harmless way. The spectator is released from negative feelings such as fear or anger. Aristotle’s definition of catharsis is not precise and therefore was interpreted in various ways.
The Clinical model is based on the work of psychoanalytical researchers, e.g., Josef Breuer and Sigmund Freud, who assumed the existence of an inherent aggressive drive as well as a correlation between repressed negative emotions and psychological symptoms. To treat these symptoms, they used a new therapeutic method, the catharsis method, whereby patients were encouraged to relive the situations that had given rise to their repressed feelings. By talking about them under hypnosis patients’ tension was reduced and they were cured of their psychological symptoms. The term “catharsis” was used to describe the effect of the abreaction of repressed emotions.
The Experimental model can be traced back to the work of John Dollard and his collegues, who defined catharsis in the context of the frustration aggression theory as the reduction of aggression caused by the expression of any act of aggression. Here the catharsis was restricted to aggression catharsis.
Since the 1950s various experiments have been performed on the reduction of aggression by phantasm or by vicarious aggression in witnessing violence on television. One of the researchers was Seymour Feshbach, who introduced the concept of catharsis to media effects research (initially as a combination of the Experimental and Clinical models). As the findings of most of the studies did not support the catharsis theory, but rather showed contrary effects, the theory was modified. It was argued that a catharsis could occur only if the recipient was emotionally aroused or aggressive, otherwise stimulating effects were expected. Other variations of the catharsis theory consider the content of the perceived aggressive action, perception of the consequences of the aggressive action, the participation of the viewers in the plot, or identification with the actors. The empirical evidence for all variations is weak.
Research results on catharsis were often called into question. First, methodological aspects were criticized, e.g., the suitability of the stimulus material used, particularly in the early studies where whether the stimulus shown was perceived as aggressive by the viewers was not controlled. The stimulus material often consisted of a film lasting a few minutes, which might have been too short for evoking a catharsis. The measurement of aggression of the test subjects before the experiments was often disregarded as well as the measurement of the subjects’ involvement in the films shown. Another central point of discussion was the measurement of aggression itself, especially the question of how to measure the motivation to aggression and the strength of the aggression drive. In the context of laboratory experiments a problem was how to annoy the test subjects and to provoke their aggression.
Second, research on catharsis theory was criticized on the level of content, e.g., the interpretation of a measured decrease of aggression after the watching of vicarious aggression as a symbolic catharsis. Several researchers interpreted these findings as a result of the inhibition of aggression due to aggression anxiety caused by watching violent actions. Feshbach’s later reference to Aristotle was often seen as inadequate because his conception of an aggression catharsis differs immensely from Aristotle’s conception of catharsis.
Third, on a theoretical level it was questioned why a reduction of aggression drive should have reductive rather than reinforcing effects on the likelihood of further aggressive actions.
After the discussion about the validity of the catharsis theory and the lack of empirical evidence (which went on for several years), most researchers conclude today that the catharsis theory is obsolete. Others, like Berkowitz, one of the main critics of the catharsis theory, state the existence of “results which definitely suggest that a catharsis process has occurred – under limited circumstances” (Berkowitz 1993, 348). Today, there is still ongoing research on the catharsis theory, for example, in the context of violent computer games or song lyrics (Anderson et al. 2003), and the idea of aggression catharsis is still popular among nonscientists (Bushman et al. 1999).
- Anderson, C. A., Carnagey, N. L., & Eubanks, J. (2003). Exposure to violent media: The effects of songs with violent lyrics on aggressive thoughts and feelings. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 84, 960 – 971.
- Berkowitz, L. (1993). Aggression. New York: McGraw-Hill.
- 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, 367–376.
- Feshbach, S. (1984). The catharsis hypothesis, aggressive drive, and the reduction of aggression. Aggressive Behavior, 10, 91–101.
- Geen, R. G., & Quanty, M. B. (1977). The catharsis of aggression: An evaluation of a hypothesis. In L. Berkowitz (ed.), Advances in experimental social psychology, vol. X. New York: Academic Press, pp. 1–37.
- Geen, R. G., Stonner, D., & Shope, G. L. (1975). The facilitation of aggression by aggression: Evidence against the catharsis hypothesis. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 31, 721–726.
- Kunczik, M., & Zipfel, A. (2006). Gewalt und Medien [Violence and media], 5th edn. Cologne: Böhlau.