Kai-Tak Poon, an assistant psychology professor at the Education University of Hong Kong, led a team that asked a group of 138 American adults to pick the person they hate the most. Half were asked to fantasize about doing something violent to that person (which could involve murder, but could also just be an angry slap). The other participants were asked to fantasize about taking any neutral action. The results suggested that those who fantasized about aggression were more likely to ruminate, which then lowered their perception of their own well-being. Thinking about hurting a sworn enemy bums people out, even if, on a certain level, the idea is really appealing.
Dennis Reidy, a professor involved with Georgia State University’s Center for Research on Interpersonal Violence, says there’s much scientific evidence for the link. “People who have aggressive fantasies are more likely to be aggressive, whether it’s physically or just a sense of irritability or hostile personality,” he says. “They are more negative people, and are more likely to have negative affect and lower subjective well-being.”
Poon’s study asserts that violent fantasies themselves cause a person to feel worse, but Reidy wouldn’t go that far, because of what he sees as weaknesses in the study’s approach. No measure of the participants’ subjective well-being was taken before they were asked to fantasize, for instance, and more than a dozen participants were excluded from the study’s results because they either couldn’t name a nemesis or couldn’t conjure up a violent fantasy. (Those people sound great.)
Another issue, Reidy says, is that violent fantasy itself is a form of rumination. As Poon’s study notes, rumination can be difficult to stop once it starts. So prompting someone to do it would usually cause the rumination—and its attendant negative effects—to continue. “Anybody who you asked to fantasize [violence] about someone they hate … is going [to] have more negative affect in the moments afterward,” Reidy says. (Poon did not respond to requests for comment.)
Even though a link between graphic fantasies of violence and feeling not so great might sound logical, for much of modern psychology’s history, that link wasn’t assumed. Instead, psychologists preferred catharsis theory, which suggests that venting anger—or pursuing ruminative thought—could help a person let go of negative feelings by working through them. In the past couple decades, though, catharsis theory has been unmoored from the foundation of how psychologists understand aggression. In one discrediting study, participants were provoked with criticism and then asked to hit a punching bag while thinking of the person who criticized them. Relative to a control group who just sat quietly, the punchers felt even more upset after they finished letting it out. If your cup runneth over with anger, you can’t just pour a little off.