As a 21st century data-driven psychologist, I find it difficult to invoke the name of Sigmund Freud. In fact, when trying to type his name, I misspelled it on my first three attempts. Some sort of slip, I guess. It has been suggested by some that Freud’s influence today is more noteworthy in the field of literature than in the field of psychology. As it turns out, many of his psychoanalytic ideas have not been supported by research data.
One of his best-known concepts is that of catharsis. According to Freud, if people are given an opportunity to act out their pent-up frustrations, aggressions, and violence in safe and protected environments, then their negative emotional energy will be reduced, and their overall behavior will be more positive in the other aspects of their lives. As the theory goes, watching violent television will help me to deal with my aggressive instincts and will facilitate a more positive interaction with my family, my co-workers, and my neighbors. Playing violent computer games will satisfy my violent urges, hence improving my real-world behavior.
Catharsis continues to be a popular idea, but one that is not supported by the data. Instead, when people are given an opportunity to behave in a violent fashion (perhaps on the football field or in the boxing ring), they learn and are reinforced for their violent responses; they tend to practice those violent behavior patterns in other aspects of their lives.
The story of Ray Rice, recently of the Baltimore Ravens, is a case in point. The NFL is the target of societal angst, because the story is bringing to light the large number of domestic abuse cases that have received trivial (if any) attention by the league. The NFL seems to have been much more concerned with its public image than with upholding and supporting healthy societal norms and practices. If Freud had been right, you might think that because of Rice’s opportunity to release his aggressive instincts in the publicly accepted and popular head-to-head football clashes, his private behavior should be less violent. It’s just one anecdote, and a single case proves nothing, but the larger picture of behavior in the NFL suggests that violence on the football field is far too often reenacted in the players’ private lives.
The media has also been covering the story of boxer Floyd Mayweather Jr., who may be the highest paid athlete today. Mayweather’s comments indicate that he thinks Rice’s problem is not that he punched out and abused his fiancée, but that he got caught. Even in boxing, it appears that the opportunity to release your aggression in the ring is not associated with a more peaceful lifestyle, as Mayweather has a long record of a troubled past.
The violence in sports goes well beyond football and boxing. I think of the violent fan escapades that sometimes occur in European soccer stadiums. I think of violent celebrations following championship games. The problem is larger than just American football.
For several years the NFL has been struggling with the issue of concussion-related injuries and the potential for long-term debilitating brain damage. Although these physical problems of the players are serious concerns that must be addressed, the NFL has failed to address the serious problem of domestic abuse, a problem that is far too prevalent in our society and among our athletes. These athletic role models, who are paid millions of dollars because of their unique skills, must be held to a higher standard.
Freud was wrong. Catharsis does not drain our aggressive instincts. We do not need practice in aggression. Rather, we need to practice caring, altruistic, and positive social skills.