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Thursday, March 28, 2013

To rant or not to rant

Who hasn’t occasionally felt like indulging in an online rant against an injustice or an example of stupidity? The good news is that there are myriad sites dedicated to just this activity. Whatever triggers your ire, there’s a website where you can pour out your vitriol to like-minded enraged compatriots. The bad news is that you may not be doing yourself a favor if you partake in this kind of venting.

Ryan Martin and his colleagues from the University of Wisconsin-Green Bay gave 91 college students a Differential Emotions Scale (DES) test to evaluate their levels of happiness, sadness, anger and/or fear on a scale of 0 to 100. Immediately after assessing their current emotions, they were asked to spend five minutes reading through the posts on a rant-site (screen shots were used so that all participants read the exact same rants). After reading the site, the subjects completed another DES. Next, the volunteers were asked to spend five minutes writing their own anonymous rant on any topic they chose. Upon completion, they filled out a final DES.

Reading the rants caused the average person’s happiness levels to decrease and sadness levels to increase. However, the difference wasn’t extreme. For both emotions, the post-reading levels were less than five points different. Remember, this was on a scale of 100 possible points. Writing their own rants affected participants more significantly. People’s happiness decreased by ten points and their anger increased by close to fourteen points after writing their screeds.

The subjects were each asked whether they’d like their own rant posted onto the site they had been reading (though none were actually posted regardless of preference). Those who wished to publish had experienced more anger while reading posts than those who did not want their own vents published. On the other hand, the people who were ready to publish their own rants had less decrease in happiness while writing those rants than people who didn’t want to publish. Interestingly, the subset of participants (7%) who said they would go back to the rant site on their own time actually experienced an increase in happiness while reading the site.

This data suggests that for most people, reading and writing rants is counterproductive. They were more angry and sad and less happy after engaging in these activities. However, for the people who looked forward to publishing their own rants, reading and writing rants seemed to be somewhat enjoyable. I should point out that this was a small, highly subjective study with no controls, and that the body of evidence about the value of catharsis is mixed. I think the bottom line is that if you find that reading diatribes makes you angry or anxious, it’s probably not the best activity for you. Personally, I’m very selective about reading the comments on YouTube channels or blogs (except mine, I love the comments on The Stochastic Scientist!). 

Martin, R., Coyier, K., VanSistine, L., & Schroeder, K. (2013). Anger on the Internet: The Perceived Value of Rant-Sites Cyberpsychology, Behavior, and Social Networking, 16 (2), 119-122 DOI: 10.1089/cyber.2012.0130.

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