There is really only one way I deal with indignation, be it righteous or ridiculous, if I happen to be at a computer when it happens: I take it to Gchat. I find a friend with the little green dot next to their name, and I’m off, maniacally pouring my (often misspelled and typo-ridden) frustrations into the little chat window. Melissa is typing. Melissa has entered text.
But it’s all fair. Sooner rather than later, I’ll likely be on the receiving end of a similar rant from a friend, talking (typing?) them down about some irritating thing their boss or boyfriend or whoever did. For me, Gchat has become a near-perfect medium for venting: It’s immediate, it’s intimate, and there’s just something so satisfying about the physical sensation of typing very, very hard, taking out my annoyance onto my poor keyboard. But there are so many alternatives, too. You can text out your anger to a responsive friend, tweet your frustrations to everyone you know (and plenty of others you don’t), or use WhatsApp or Kik or whatever else the generation younger than me is using these days.
The point is, it’s possible now to do this kind of ranting practically 24/7, whenever the most minor problem materializes. In the moment, the sensation is pure gratification, an itch blissfully scratched. But what is it doing in the long run? Probably, it’s just making you madder, according to researchers who study anger and venting as a coping mechanism. Venting “just doesn’t work the way people think it does,” said Jeffrey M. Lohr, a psychologist at the University of Arkansas. Most people think that it’s psychologically healthy to let it all out or blow off steam—but if this were true, then after a venting session, you should feel calmer and less angry. But research dating back to the late 1950s shows that the opposite is true.
In 2007, Lohr published a paper in The Scientific Review of Mental Health Practice that reviewed decades of studies on the effects of venting on subsequent anger. In 1969, for example, a member of a University of Missouri research team gave students instructions on making some simple origami sailboats. But the instructor intentionally talked way too fast, made mistakes in the demonstration, and then didn’t give the students enough time to properly make their little paper boats.
Halfway through the instructions, some of the students were given the opportunity to let out their frustrations with the teacher on an evaluation form; the rest of the students just kept listening to the confusing lecture. When their time was up, all the students were given a final evaluation form, which, they were told, would go on the teacher’s permanent record. Whatever that meant. When the researchers reviewed the forms, they discovered that the students who’d already been given a chance to rant about their teacher wrote crueler and angrier remarks about their experience, and reported feeling more hostile toward the instructor than the students who hadn’t filled out the earlier evaluation. “In other words, expressing their anger seemed to preserve rather than reduce the hostile feelings,” Lohr and his co-authors write.
Unclear expectations for a project, with instructions delivered too quickly and haphazardly to digest, followed by inadequate time to complete said project? Sounds a lot like everyday frustrations at work. One friend of mine (who asked me not to use his name) used to vent to me off and on throughout the day about how much he hated his boss. He’s since left the company, and he wonders now if he really hated the boss as much as he thought he did, or if Gchatting about his annoyance all day only served to rile him up. The research would suggest it’s likely the latter. There’s even some evidence that letting your anger out in this way could be causing some serious damage to your physical health, as one study published earlier this year linked angry tweets to higher incidence of heart disease.
And yet, venting feels so great while you’re in the middle of it, and people sincerely believe that it will make them feel better, according to research by Brad Bushman, a psychology and communication professor who studies aggression at the Ohio State University. It’s a nice bonus when the friend you’re chatting to agrees that you’ve been treated in a most unjust manner, but it’s not always necessary. Another friend told me that when she’s particularly upset at work, she’ll go to Gchat and type her frustrations out, even if her friend isn’t actually online. The complaining itself is the real draw. “People love to vent,” said Bushman. When people get mad, their natural instinct is usually not to do the things that Bushman and Lohr and others who study anger very much wish they would do—that is, behaviors they will calm them down, like slowly counting to ten, taking a walk, or giving the dog or cat some nice head scratches. “Instead, people want to scream, shout, swear, hit, and kick,” Bushman said.
It’s fine to voice your anger, and it’s not as if the psychologically superior strategy is to try to just turn it off. “The meaningful part is to say, Okay, now I got that off my chest—what am I going to do about it?” Lohr said. Switching your focus from your emotions to some potential solutions is one way to stop yourself from getting disproportionately worked up about whatever is bugging you. (You can also gently nudge a Gchat-ranting friend in this direction after listening for a little while.) There are better ways than venting to deal with anger, in other words, though it’s convenient that at least one strategy can still be employed via Gchat.