Catharsis Theory March 12, 2010Posted by nahlafathima in Uncategorized.
Tags: catharsis theory, Media effect, media ethics
The word catharsis comes from the Greek word katharsis, which literally translated means “a cleansing or purging.”
The first recorded mention of catharsis occurred more than one thousand years ago, in the work Poetics by Aristotle. Aristotle taught that viewing tragic plays gave people emotional release (katharsis) from negative feelings such as pity, fear, and anger. By watching the characters in the play experience tragic events, the negative feelings of the viewer were presumably purged and cleansed. This emotional cleansing was believed to be beneficial to both the individual and society. 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.
Dramatic model: 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.
Clinical model: The Clinical model is based on the work of psychoanalytical. The ancient notion of catharsis was revived by Sigmund Freud and his associates. For example, A. A. Brill, the psychiatrist who introduced the psychoanalytic techniques of Freud to the United States, prescribed that his patients watch a prize fight once a month to purge their angry, aggressive feelings into harmless channels.
Many directors and producers of violent media claim that their products are cathartic. For example, Alfred Hitchcock, director of the movie Psycho, said, “One of television’s greatest contributions is that it brought murder back into the home where it belongs. Seeing a murder on television can be good therapy. It can help work off one’s antagonism.” More recently, in 1992, Paul Verhoeven, director of the movie Total Recall, said, “I think it’s a kind of purifying experience to see violence.”
The producers of violent computer games, like the producers of violent films, claim that their products are cathartic. For example, Sega Soft has created an online network containing violent games that claims to provide users an outlet for the “primal human urge to kill.” In promotional materials for the fictional CyberDivision movement, the imaginary founder Dr. Bartha says, “We kill. It’s OK. It’s not our fault any more than breathing or urinating.” Dr. Bartha claims that aggressive urges and impulses can be purged by playing violent video games. “It’s a marketing campaign,” said a SegaSoft spokesperson, “but there is some validity to the concept that you need an outlet for aggressive urges.” Some people who play violent computer games, such as the following thirty-year-old video game player, agree: “When the world pisses you off and you need a place to vent, Quake [a violent video game] is a great place for it. You can kill somebody and watch the blood run down the walls, and it feels good. But when it’s done, you’re rid of it.”
What do the scientific data say about the effects of viewing violence? Do violent media decrease or increase aggressive and violent behavior? Socialscientists have been very interested in this question since the late 1960s. The results from hundreds of studies have converged on the conclusion that viewing violence increases aggression. In fact, the U.S. Surgeon General came to this conclusion as early as 1972. The scientific evidence is overwhelming on this point. Viewing violence is definitely not cathartic—it increases rather than decreases anger and subsequent aggression.
Catharsis theory is elegant and highly plausible, but it is false. It justifies and perpetuates the myth that viewing violence is healthy and beneficial, when in fact viewing violence is unhealthy and detrimental. After reviewing the scientific research, Carol Tavris (1988) concluded, “It is time to put a bullet, once and for all, through the heart of the catharsis hypothesis. The belief that observing violence (or ‘ventilating it’) gets rid of hostilities has virtually never been supported by research.”