The paper-ball theory of anger management

You’ve probably seen it on TV: someone is made so angry by a piece of paper bearing negative news that they literally destroy it. They crumple up a cutting break-up letter, shred an exam that received a terrible mark, or fling a newspaper containing a bad review into the fire. Dramatic? Yes. But that old trope may be just the psychological trick we need to overcome our own anger.

It may seem perfectly intuitive. Other aggressive ways of dealing with anger, like punching a punching bag or stomping around the room, sure seem to have the ability to diffuse the intensity of the emotion. Yet it’s always satisfying to have confirmation from science that our most instinctive reactions, like angrily destroying an offending paper in our hands, really do help.

But, according to a paper recently published in the online journal Scientific Reports by Nature, how you do it counts. Only by writing down our thoughts on a piece of paper first, and then destroying them, can we relieve ourselves of our anger and move on with our lives.

To demonstrate this, researchers in Japan asked participants (university students) to write a brief essay for evaluation by a doctoral student. When the feedback came, it was nasty (and frankly unprofessional), containing criticisms like “I can’t believe an educated person would think like this”. Participants were asked to assess their own level of anger before writing the essay and after receiving the negative feedback, and then instructed to think analytically about and write about how they felt after receiving the feedback. Once they’d written down their thoughts, what they did next depended on the group the researchers put them in: some crumpled up their written reflections and threw them away, some shredded them in a paper shredder, and others kept their response by their side.

According to self-assessments, those who crumpled or shredded their responses relieved themselves of anger, while those who kept their responses remained as angry as before.

The results are interesting in the light of the other intuitively known phenomena like the effects of keeping a diary, which often feels like a way of detaching yourself from your emotions, a tidying of your day, a Marie Kondo-ing of the mind. Tidying up might be well and good, but perhaps, this Japanese study suggests, if you really want to get the full effects of emotion management you should tear out and destroy the pages of your journal before you turn out the light at night. As we’ve said before, keeping a diary isn’t for the weak.

In any event, this study proves the power of writing to help you not just reflect on your anger, but eliminate it. So next time your ire is riled, reflect on your feelings and write them down on a piece of paper. And then destroy it. Crumple it up. Shred it. Or choose some other preferred method of satisfying paper-sadism. Just make sure, to avoid provoking angry reactions from your family or colleagues, you put the pieces in the paper recycling box.