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Managing anger and other negative emotions

Since time immemorial humans have tried to devise anger management techniques. In ancient Rome, the Stoic philosopher Seneca believed “my anger is likely to do me more harm than your wrong” and offered avoidance tips in his AD45 work De Ira (On Anger).

More modern methods include a workout on the gym punchbag or exercise bike. But the humble paper shredder may be a more effective – and accessible – way to decompress, according to research.

A study in Japan has found that writing down your reaction to a negative incident on a piece of paper and then shredding it, or scrunching it into a ball and throwing it in the bin, gets rid of anger. “We expected that our method would suppress anger to some extent,” said Nobuyuki Kawai, lead researcher of the study at Nagoya University. “However, we were amazed that anger was eliminated almost entirely.”

The study, published in Scientific Reports on Nature, builds on research on the association between the written word and anger reduction as well as studies showing how interactions with physical objects can control a person’s mood. For instance, those wanting revenge on an ex-partner may burn letters or destroy gifts.

Researchers believe the shredder results may be related to the phenomenon of “backward magical contagion”, which is the belief that actions taken on an object associated with a person can affect the individuals themselves. In this case, getting rid of the negative physical entity, the piece of paper, causes the original emotion to also disappear.

This is a reversal of “magical contagion” or “celebrity contagion” – the belief that the “essence” of an individual can be transferred through their physical possessions.

Fifty student participants were asked to write brief opinions about an important social problem, such as whether smoking in public should be outlawed. Evaluators then deliberately scored the papers low on intelligence, interest, friendliness, logic, and rationality. For good measure, evaluators added insulting comments such as: “I cannot believe an educated person would think like this. I hope this person learns something while at the university.”

The wound-up participants then wrote down their angry thoughts on the negative feedback on a piece of paper. One group was told to either roll up the paper and throw it in a bin or keep it in a file on their desk. A second group was told to shred the paper, or put it in a plastic box.

Anger levels of the individuals who discarded their paper in the bin or shredded it returned to their initial state, while those who retained a hard copy of the paper experienced only a small decrease in their overall anger.

Researchers concluded that “the meaning (interpretation) of disposal plays a critical role” in reducing anger. “This technique could be applied in the moment by writing down the source of anger as if taking a memo and then throwing it away,” said Kawai.

Along with its practical benefits, this discovery may shed light on the origins of the Japanese cultural tradition known as hakidashisara (hakidashi sara refers to a dish or plate) at the Hiyoshi shrine in Kiyosu, just outside Nagoya. Hakidashisara is an annual festival where people smash small discs representing things that make them angry. The study’s findings may explain the feeling of relief that participants report after leaving the festival, the paper concluded.

Caroline Davies