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A Look at the Psychology Behind the Movie "The Purge"

Does venting aggression really calm us down?

Official poster for The Purge movie

Official poster for The Purge movie

There’s a science fiction thriller movie out right now called The Purge. I actually couldn’t believe the idea behind the movie when I heard it, because it’s based on a psychological myth that the writers apparently don’t know is a myth.

In The Purge, thanks to an annual government-sanctioned 12-hour period during which violent criminal activity is permitted almost without restriction, American crime and unemployment are at record lows. So for every year theft, looting, rape, murder, you name it, are perfectly acceptable for 12 hours. As you can imagine, chaos reigns.

“Proof” that this system is effective is included at the end of the film in the form of news audio, which points out that while the depravity and the death count are increasing each year, each Purge is also more successful in keeping crime down the rest of the year.

The film certainly captured the interest of the viewing public—created on a $3 million budget, it made over $34 million its opening weekend. And while we seem to have a kind of built-in fascination with how twisted human beings can be—witness the success of Silence of the Lambs, Se7en, and the Saw films—the movie is also giving us a loaded message when it suggests that aggressively venting our rage is any kind of solution.*

Catharsis (discharging) of aggression may logically seem like it would lead to emotional relief, but the reality is that acting out our rage is more likely to increase aggression than purge it. Also, even hypothetically speaking, carrying around a whole year’s worth of hatred just to act it out in a murderous rampage once a year isn’t likely to make people follow the rules better the rest of the year—it’s likely to reduce the guilt that keeps most people from acting on their most violent impulses in the first place.

Rage begets rage, both in ourselves and in others. It might sound funny to say this, but I think the film 28 Days Later (in which the zombies are violent because they’re infected with a “rage virus”) has a more realistic understanding of all of this than The Purge’s supposedly reduced social problems.

The concept isn’t totally bogus: Researchers have found that sometimes retaliation against the person who upset us can help calm us down. But only under certain circumstances: “if they direct their counterattack toward the provoker, if their retaliation seems justifiable, and if their target is not intimidating” (1).

Yet even there we see problems. Angry people aren’t usually angry about one single problem or person—they’re angry about the rush-hour traffic, about their conflicts with their bosses, about a fellow store patron’s screaming child. It doesn’t help that many hassles—broken air conditioners, government policies, car problems— can be blamed on no one person, or at least not on someone who’s available for attack.

When we have no one specific to rage against, attempts to achieve catharsis can actually make us feel more helpless, which only fans the flames.

Psychologist Roy Baumeister argues that most evil—acts of cruelty and violence—are actually due to an escalating competition over who did the other person most wrong. That is, if you do something that I don’t like and I retaliate, you’re a lot less likely to grovel than you are to plot revenge. And when you do retaliate, you’ll step it up a notch. Which will make me do the same thing. And so on.

The old Biblical “eye for an eye, tooth for a tooth” wasn’t created because religious leaders wanted to give folks a loophole in the Ten Commandments; it was created because at the time, when one person wronged another, the wronged person didn’t just do the same thing back and then feel satisfied. No, the wronged person would respond to, say, the theft of some goats by killing all of the instigator’s animals, burning his house to the ground, abducting his wife, raping his daughters, and murdering his sons. In other words, when people felt free to vent their rage at will, things got really ugly.

You may be familiar with the hard-driving Type A personality, but you may not realize that the moniker was originally coined to describe coronary patients. That is, researchers realized that many coronary patients are competitive, impatient, and interpersonally hostile and angry, and they’ve since established a causal link: people who live the Type A life are more likely to develop coronary heart disease. (Knowing this, isn’t it interesting that heart disease is the leading cause of death for both men and women? We’re an angry group.) It doesn’t help to realize that angry people are also stressed out people. And chronic stress is associated with a bunch of other problems: headaches, acne, colitis, back pain, allergies, arthritis, nausea, sleep problems, exhaustion, depression, anxiety, and substance abuse, just to name a few.

Now, none of this is to say that anger does not serve a worthwhile purpose if it alerts us that someone is mistreating us, or that we have an issue that needs to be dealt with. Nor am I trying to say you shouldn’t tell other people when you’re angry. Controlled expressions of anger to help the other person understand what you think and to fuel attempts to reach a mutually agreeable goal are fine. But beating the stuffing out of a punching bag—let alone another human being—is going to make you more aggressive, not less.

So if not catharsis, how do we deal with the things that make us angry?

As noted above, it's a good idea to talk things over with someone you’re angry with as issues arise. Although you may need a time-out before you’re able to discuss things reasonably, and though addressing conflict directly can be scary and stressful, tackling problems as reasonably as possible will keep you from unfair explosions of rage when you can’t take it anymore. Also, explosions are far less likely to fix the problem than an attempt to find a workable solution for both people. (And when you can’t do that, sometimes we have to turn to other decisions like “Is this really the right relationship/job/neighborhood for me?”)

People who bounce back from stress tend to view challenges as opportunities to grow, to have a commitment to active problem-solving, and, partly as a result of these attitudes, a better sense of control. Coping skills and resource availability also help—being an optimist rather than a pessimist, not wallowing in negative emotions without setting any time limits on yourself, leaning on people you can trust to help you through. (See, there’s another place angry people may be lacking—someone who’s mad at everyone and takes it out on other people isn’t likely to have many friends.)

As a college professor, I deal with some pretty angry people. Some of them are angry at the system, some of them are angry at my colleagues, and some of them are angry with me. I quickly learned that when I get angry in return, I really do feel helpless, because I’ve allowed myself to be pushed to a point where I don’t know what to do other than get mad. But when you do your best to listen to other people's side and let them know you've heard them, situations seem to naturally defuse so you can find a solution that will keep you from having to deal with the problem over and over again.

Once in a while we all meet someone who’s just an angry person—you know what I mean, someone with a chip on their shoulder who hates the world—but rather than let them make you feel bad, remind yourself that it's not about you. It's about them. And then, if you're feeling generous, you can feel bad for them. It’s almost Dantesque—they’re living in a hell of their own making.

* This is not to say the movie is actually advocating violence, simply that--regardless of political message--the idea that catharsis is a useful way to deal with aggression (just the concept itself) is on shaky ground based on psychological research. That is, for all that the movie is trying to say, it's using a premise that is unsound...which can serve to undermine the audience's confidence in other messages.

(1) Reference: Myers, D. (2013). Psychology. New York: Worth Publishers.

Dr. Carolyn Kaufman is the author of The Writer's Guide to Psychology: How to Write Accurately About Psychological Disorders, Clinical Treatment and Human Behavior. More information is available on the book's website.

© 2013 Carolyn Kaufman, PsyD Psychology for Writers on Psychology Today