Would THE PURGE Be Good for You? (The Science of Purging) — Wisecrack Edition

Welcome to this Wisecrack Edition on the Psychology of the Purge!

Written & Narrated by: Helen Floersh
Directed by: Michael Luxemburg
Edited by: Mark Potts
Motion Graphics by: Drew Levin
Produced by: Emily Dunbar
Special Thanks to: Jonathan Ramirez, Helen Thompson, and Trine Daely

Would THE PURGE Be Good for You? (The Science of Purging) — Wisecrack Edition

Hey Wisecrack! If you didn’t catch my Science of One Punch Man video, my name’s Helen, and I’m here to up Wisecrack’s science game. So, thanks to Brilliant.org for sponsoring this video, and join us, as we talk about everyone’s favorite holiday that institutionalizes the extermination of the poor: The Purge.

The Purge is an annual free-for-all crime spree that, in theory, allows citizens to rid their wretched souls of deep-seated desires by doing all the murdering and pillaging they want for 12 hours, without having to worry about the po-po. While the government in the Purge obviously has social cleansing at the top of its agenda, — “Unfortunately, the citizens aren’t killing enough, so we supplement it all, to keep things balanced” — the ostensible reason for the holiday is that if we can be super sh*tty for just one day a year, we can behave like model citizens for the other 364.

But… would it work? Can venting our anger somehow make us less aggressive? Sharpen your hacksaws and cock your glocks, kids. We’ll take a look in this special Wisecrack Edition of the Psychology of The Purge. And, as always, spoilers ahead.

The first film opens in a swanky, suburban utopia somewhere outside of L.A. The media is fired up about purge night like it’s Super Bowl Sunday, encouraging citizens everywhere to do their civic duty and “release the beast” when the clock strikes 7. “American streets will be running red tonight, when people release the beast in record numbers.” “Mr. Kelly! You’re getting one last walk in before lockdown, huh?” “Yep!” After all, the experts say, humans are innately violent creatures, pretending to be anything otherwise is to deny our true nature. “The Purge not only contains societal violence to a single evening, but the countrywide catharsis creates psychological stability by letting us release the aggression we all have inside of us.”

So, what is catharsis, anyway? Psychology defines catharsis as “the process of experiencing emotional relief through the release of pent-up feelings, especially pity or fear.” The concept comes from the Greek word for “purification” or “cleansing.” It dates back to the days of Aristotle, who postulated that watching tragic performances could induce such intense feelings of pity or fear that viewers would ultimately be cleansed of these emotions. In his work Politics, Aristotle writes: “Those who are subject to the emotions of pity and fear… will necessarily be affected in the same way; and so will other men in exact proportion to their susceptibility to such emotions. All experience a certain purge Katharsis and pleasant relief.”

The New Founding Fathers have been feeding this idea to the masses for a few years by the time the first movie opens. Even the otherwise benign Sandin family is down with the purge, which isn’t exactly surprising considering James profits big time from selling security systems to his fellow well-heeled suburbanites. Naturally, James repeats this “logic” to his son Charlie, saying that grownups have to purge sometimes to get rid of all their emotional gunk, and that it’s okay to kill people for one night of the year if it lifts your spirits. “Look, I know this is difficult to understand at your age, but tonight allows people a release for all the hatred and violence and aggression they keep up inside them.”

The series also is loaded with baptismal language, with people justifying their actions with words like, “Purify!” “Cleanse our souls.” “Blessed be America, a nation reborn.”

About a thousand years or so after Aristotle made his claim about the cathartic benefits of theater, penis-envyist and cocaine aficionado Sigmund Freud theorized that repressing certain kinds of negative emotions could lead to the buildup of phobias, hysteria or nervous outbursts. One possible solution? “Discharging” the emotion by doing unto others as they have to you – in other words, vengeance.
In their 1895 book Studies on Hysteria, Freud and his psych bro Josef Breuer wrote, “The reaction of an injured person to a trauma has really only… a ‘cathartic’ effect if it is expressed in an adequate reaction like revenge.” Freud and Breuer’s ideas on catharsis were the foundation for the hydraulic model of anger, which suggests that frustrations lead to anger, anger leads to the buildup of negative emotions, and built-up negative emotions ultimately lead to an explosion of rage, one where you have just one of those days, where you might — “wanna justify ripping someone’s head off!”

The theories that built on this idea suggested that we ought to drain our anger little by little, rather than let it out all at once. In a way, that idea is at odds with the type of catharsis that’s encouraged in the Purge, which is more like saving up your explosion of hostility rather than a steady drain.

But the New Founding Fathers’ concept has support in a theory by a quintet of psychologists who published a book called Frustration and Aggression in 1939. The work postulates that aggression is a consequence of frustration, and that aggressive acts lead to a reduction in “aggressive drive,” which makes it less likely that one will act like this.

In a quote that sounds like it could have come straight from the New Founding Fathers, psychologist and author Dorothy Baruch wrote, “When pus accumulates and forms an abscess, the abscess must be opened and drained. If this is not done, the infection spreads. In the end it may destroy the individual. Just so with feelings. The ‘badness’ must come out. The hurts and fears and anger must be released and drained. Otherwise, these too may destroy the individual.” This so-called catharsis hypothesis was accepted until researchers started actually studying it. In one of the first experiments, conducted by psychologist Robert Howard Hornberger, a group of participants were insulted, then half of them were told to hammer nails for ten minutes – a physical manifestation of venting. Afterwards, they were given the chance to criticize the person who’d insulted them. If the catharsis theory held true, then pounding the nails would make the disgraced participants less aggressive toward the insulter. Instead, the opposite happened – the ones who’d hammered nails were actually more hostile.

Subsequent research turned up mixed results for the catharsis hypothesis, and according to a review of the evidence conducted by Russell Geen and Michael Quanty in 1977, a lot of the studies that indicated that aggressive behavior reduced one’s tendency for violence had methodological issues – and when replicated, the results were the opposite. Geen and Quanty ultimately concluded that the notion of catharsis “had not been confirmed.”

Psychologist Brad Bushman revisited this idea again in 2002. After having someone insult another group of participants, he had them either sit quietly, hit a punching bag with the aim of getting physically fit, or hit a punching bag while thinking about the person who had insulted them. Then, he gave them a chance to confront their insulter. Those who sat quietly were least likely to be aggressive, while those who’d thought about the person who insulted them were the most likely to be aggressive. The ones who hit the bag without thinking about the insulter were somewhere in between. This suggests that, while getting all worked up from exercise might have increased aggression compared to sitting quietly, ruminating on anger while acting out aggressively was the most likely to amplify anger overall – a contrast to the catharsis hypothesis. Bushman writes, “Venting to reduce anger is like using gasoline to put out a fire — it only feeds the flame.”

Okay, but is there any evidence that catharsis is a thing? Maybe. According to Geen and Quanty, there are circumstances where angered people do seem to calm down if they have the chance to retaliate against their provoker. But the context is pretty specific: the retaliation should be justified, and the target can’t be intimidating. In other words, expressing anger can be temporarily calming, if you aren’t left feeling anxious, guilty, or afraid that you’re about to get your ass kicked. It should also be noted that in the studies cited here, Bushman’s experiments only looked at catharsis over a short window after a participant had been insulted, which perhaps leaves open the idea that aggressive behavior could be cathartic over the long term. His longer studies on aggression mostly focus on the impact of exposure to violence in the media, but that’s a whole ‘nother episode.

So, if acting out your aggressive urges doesn’t relieve your emotional angst
and might even make it worse – what does? Psychology has a couple suggestions, with strategies like deep breathing, relaxation, and cognitive behavioral therapy at the top of the list. Something called primal screaming has also been tested, but the results were kind of inconclusive. And when it comes to deciding whether to avenge wrong-doing or let it slide, it seems that forgiving or forgetting might be better ways to free your inner demons. A 2008 study led by Kevin Carlsmith of Colgate University gives evidence that people who have been wronged are less likely to keep thinking about someone who has offended them if they move on without punishing them. And another group of researchers have developed a theory that even though humans are hard-wired to want to retaliate against an aggressor, they’ve evolved to forgive because it’s evolutionarily advantageous. While getting revenge against someone might make it less likely that they’ll hurt you again, retaliation also ruins the chance to gain something from that person later. Thus, according to their hypothesis, forgiveness evolved as a way for us to have our cake and eat it too: we get over the offense without losing the chance to benefit from the relationship later.

The idea that forgiveness is superior to revenge is reflected in the Purge through all three of the films. Mary Sandin chooses not to kill her dickbag neighbors despite the fact that they almost hacked her children to death. “Oh for god’s sake, just do it. Come on.” “Mom, they were going to kill us.” “It doesn’t matter. We are going to play this night out in motherf**king peace.” Leo doesn’t shoot the drunk driver who walked free after killing his kid, and Senator Roan elects against offing Owens after he attempts to have her assassinated, even though doing so would have not only served him right, but also would have handed her the presidential election, which she winds up winning anyway.

It appears that the NFFA supporters didn’t quite get the memo about forgiveness, though, as they’re already wreaking havoc at the end of the last film. “NFFA supporters are reacting violently to this defeat. They are burning cars, breaking windows, looting.” So, does The Purge work? There aren’t any studies that let people, you know, go on a homicidal rage for a day, so we’re going to err on the side of caution and say “no.”

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