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14. Dangerous Behaviour: Inhibitions and Catharsis

So far we have talked about the forces that drive a person to act aggressively but if that is all there was to it we’d be thumping each other left right and centre! Inhibitions, by and large, keep those drives in check. These inhibitions may be:


Beliefs: Perhaps handed down through formative experiences (“violence is wrong” “I’m not a violent person” “violence gets you nowhere” etc)

Fear: “I might get hurt” “they look scary” etc.

Choice: “It’s not the right moment” “it’ll blow my chance of parole” “there are better ways of getting even”


So just as there is a dynamic balance between the sympathetic nervous system (the accelerator in the body) and the parasympathetic nervous system (the brake in the body) so there is also a dynamic balance between the drivers and the inhibitions.


Understanding something about how these inhibitions work is critical to finding effective pathways to manage dangerous behaviour. One obvious dis-inhibitor is alcohol. Alcohol does make a person violent, but it does disinhibit. So, if a depressed person drinks, they may be more likely to act on any suicidal thought they may have. If a person is feeling amorous, they may approach a person that are attracted to … and if they are feeling angry, resentful or hostile they may lash out.


So far, nothing that will surprise us. However, there is something else that disinhibits that is rarely talked about and may be far more relevant to our discussions. High levels of arousal also disinhibit – and this is a significant problem for those that advocate the “Catharsis Thery” – “let them vent/get it out of their system.”


Obviously if we were talking to someone who was mildly upset, we might say “it’s okay to cry” or if we felt that they were finding it difficult to say that they were angry with their father we could say “it’s okay to be angry with your dad.” Those examples, however, refer to situations where we have the trust of the other person, they are in control and can decide whether to take our advice.


That is NOT the same as an angry person screaming in our face. Here, if we were to allow, or worse encourage them to vent their feelings they might do so and more – all over us. The idea comes from the rather simplistic analogy of a build-up of water pressure in a closed container as it heats up – and the need to let off steam before it explodes. We, however, are not closed containers and emotions are not like steam!


As our arousal rises above the level of being mildly heated (see above) our capacity to think, problem-solve and even speak become increasingly limited – and when we become so aroused that we can do none of this, physical action takes over. For the purposes of responding to aggression, the “catharsis theory” become the “catharsis fallacy.”


Stay safe


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