So much for mobsters venting pent-up anger at a pillow in therapy. Or anyone for that matter.
As portrayed recently in episodes of HBO's wise guy series "The Sopranos," and in the new film "Analyze This," the notion of a Mafia thug in psychoanalysis has gained some fictional currency. At a theater near you, it's a disturbed head of a crime family, played by Robert De Niro, who fires several rounds from his handgun into a pillow in his psychiatrist's office. The doctor asks him, "Feel better?" And De Niro says, "Yeah I do."
Turn back the Hollywood clock 30 years and you find another flick depicting pop psychology's early endorsement of abusing pillows as an emotional relief valve. The 1969 encounter-session comedy "Bob and Carol and Ted and Alice" features one Freudian snippet in which a hollering therapist exhorts his dozen or so clients kneeling on the floor to take out their primal steam on hapless cushions. If only the self-conscious smirk on Natalie Wood's face as her fists battered her pillow had tipped off the next three decades of parlor psychologists and self-help gurus that pummeling pillows might be as ridiculous as it looks.
According to new research published in the March issue of the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, venting anger by beating on inanimate objects doesn't spell relief. "Not only doesn't it work, it does more harm than good," says Brad Bushman, a psychologist at Iowa State University and lead author of the research that includes findings of two studies in which more than 1,000 undergraduates participated.
One study tracked behavior of subjects who read articles supporting or debunking what is called the catharsis theory and then were provoked to anger. The other study measured anger levels of subjects who, after being provoked, either hit the punching bag or didn't. "What we found," says Bushman, "is that people are better off doing absolutely nothing than venting their anger."
The idea that expressing anger in seemingly harmless ways rids a person of "toxic venom" evolved from Sigmund Freud's theories. He thought that repressed emotions build up in a person like contained "hydraulic pressure" until the pressure is released. Since then, widespread popular belief that venting anger is healthy and constructive has by far exceeded scientific proof.
"Pop psychologists claim it works and some misguided and misinformed therapists might say it works," says Bushman, "but I've searched the literature back to the late 1800s and found no credible science that says it works."
Worse than not working, the technique produces the opposite effect. While 72 percent of the subjects who hit the punching bag reported they enjoyed it, the studies found that feeling was short-lived. Instead of translating into less anger and aggression, the "catharsis" increased their hostility. "There's the old joke," says Bushman, "how do you get to Carnegie Hall? Practice, practice, practice. How do you get more angry? Practice, practice, practice. And that's what venting anger is. More practice. People claim it is safe: `Oh, we're just hitting a pillow.' But the line between inanimate object and people can become fuzzy when angry. What if a pillow isn't available?"
In addition, the research tested anger venting for a possible placebo effect -- whether belief alone that it works produces a self-fulfilling prophecy. "If catharsis theory is true in any way, it definitely should be true when people believe that it works," says Bushman. "We proved it doesn't even work then."
But blame for a widespread belief in a technique that doesn't work goes beyond the media that perpetuate the myth -- to psychology itself, says W. Doyle Gentry, a clinical psychologist in Lynchburg, Va., and founding editor of the Journal of Behavioral Medicine.
Science hasn't studied the experience of anger nearly enough, Gentry argues. In a void of scientific data, "people tend to go with some intuitive ideas of what works and what doesn't. Most of what psychology has done in the past is just accept that some people are ballistic, and after the fact gives them some tools to deal with that.
"We need a science that helps us to shape our treatment strategies, but it is going to be slow in coming because anger is a noisy, messy and potentially dangerous emotion," says Gentry, author of the new book, "Anger Free: Ten Basic Steps to Managing Your Anger" (Morrow, $23). "I like the science of the Iowa research, because it's going to help us understand what to do and what not to do."
June Tangney says one problem in understanding how to manage anger is the tendency to reduce the possibilities to an either/or response. "Should we suppress our anger, hold it all in? Or vent it and let it hang out?" asks the professor of psychology at George Mason University. "Those aren't the only options. There are other more constructive, less aggressive ways of managing anger."
While some therapists advocate nonviolent responses to anger -- venting the emotion in a journal, or shifting the mood to activities that are incompatible with anger, such as doing a crossword puzzle or counting to 20 -- Tangney prefers having a rational, nonhostile discussion with the target of the anger. "If you're angry at your boss," she says, "generally it is a good thing to be able to sit down and rationally lay it all out. It's the stop and think thing. You don't want to fly off the handle."
Bushman believes these findings debunking pillow-punching therapies may be the death knell of a discredited and disproved practice -- making it sort of the primal scream of the '90s. But Tangney isn't so sure psychology has heard the last whack on pillows: "This whole notion of catharsis, that it is not good to squelch emotions, is so firmly engrained in our society, I don't think it necessarily is going to go away."
CAPTION: Robert De Niro is a troubled mobster and Billy Crystal is his psychiatrist in "Analyze This."