Do people become more aggressive when they are forced to bottle up their emotions? It seems like a simple enough question, but psychologists decided to find out in the most sadistic way possible, with a little help from Monty Python.
Researchers at the University of Texas and the University of Minnesota wanted to figure out how long hours and stressful situations can affect people's aggression, particularly when they are forced to hide their emotions - a common situation faced by people in the military and law enforcement. And in the name of this very important line of research, they came up with one of the wackiest experimental designs I've ever come across.
The test subjects were split into two groups - half were allowed to sleep, while the other half were required to stay away for twenty-four straight hours before coming into the study. Then they were made to watch one of two notoriously disgusting scenes - the Mr. Creosote sketch from Monty Python's The Meaning of Life and the public toilet scene in Trainspotting. Some of the subjects were asked to asked to completely control their emotions while watching these scenes, while others were allowed to react normally.
Once all this was done, the subjects were taken to a computer where they were told they could blast an online opponent with noise as part of a competition. (Yes, this is a very weird idea for a competition, online or otherwise, but let's just try to look past this.) Of course, the competition was all a fake, and there was no one on the receiving end of these sound blasts, but the test subjects didn't know that.
There was a clear difference between two groups, as one set of people set the volume at an average of 6 or 7 out of 10, while the other group only went with 4 to 5. But here's what's interesting - the more aggressive group had absolutely nothing to do with who was sleep-deprived and everything to do with whether they had had to control their emotions while watching the disgusting scenes. Letting out your emotions naturally can actually be more important than a good night's sleep, at least when it comes to aggression.
This fits in well with what the scientists call the "ego depletion effect", which suggests people who have to bottle up their emotions are the most likely to lash out later. Co-author Arthur Markman notes:
"Our research suggests people may become more aggressive after they have to control themselves. Whatever psychological mechanisms are at work when people deal with stress and then have to exercise self control later are not the same thing that happens when you're tired."
You can see the infamous Mr. Creosote sketch up above. But do us all a favor - if you're going to watch it, let yourself react naturally to it. Particularly if you plan on commenting...