Rooms built for consequence-free violence sounds appealing, even cathartic, but are more likely to be psychologically harmful than beneficial.
We have all experienced one of those days when everything seems to go wrong. When we find ourselves bursting with the almost inescapable urge to smash, thwack, and destroy. Common sense dictates that venting our anger in one way or another is a justifiable antidote to such feelings, but does this stand up to scrutiny?
Catharsis Theory, originally introduced by resident whack-job Sigmund Freud, suggests that anger and aggression build up inside of us as if we were big fleshy balloons. Expressing these feelings, be it screaming into a pillow or punching it in its stupid, pillowy face, releases tension and helps us return to a comfortable and functioning equilibrium. It is this line of thought that has given birth to the growing phenomenon of ‘Rage Rooms’.
Whether its called a Rage Room, a Rage Cage, or Angry McAngerson’s Emporium of Smashery, the idea is the same; you pay money to smash stuff into tiny little bits. It is a business idea that has been slowly spreading over the last few years and has recently received a number of high profile article write ups by the kinds of people whose organisations can afford for them to actually try these things. The same places where a catchy title is more important than the potential for long term psychological and social damage.
The idea of releasing aggression to reduce aggression is a deeply pervasive one, despite the fact that attempts to support it empirically have largely proven unsuccessful. While some may go for a jog to release tension, many others choose a more cathartic method, believing that slamming their fists into a punching bag is the best way to avoid slamming them into a person. Through releasing a controlled burst of aggression we avoid the potentially cataclysmic results of a full blown meltdown, or so the thinking goes.
But if we look at it from an evolutionary, fight-or-flight perspective things start to fall apart. For example, imagine you’ve had a long day at work with your asshole manager breathing down your neck. You decide to have a pint on the way home. As you’re drinking, quietly brooding, a rather unsavoury fellow decides to see if he can push your buttons. Your fight or flight response kicks in and you choose fight, smashing this bloke squarely in the nose. The last thing you would want is to suddenly be overcome with peaceful serenity while having your face pummelled.
Aggressive action in fact pushes us into violent overdrive, releasing an age old concoction of chemicals into our brains. To make matters worse, aggressive behaviour and stress work in a fast positive feedback loop; a vicious cycle of brain chemistry where aggression produces stress, which produces more aggression, and so on, meaning you’re probably in a worse emotional state than before. And now you’re missing teeth.
Rage rooms work in exactly the same way. They simply reduce the chances of lost teeth.
This is not to say that destruction is without its place. To observe children at play is to observe a masterclass in creative destruction. If you’ve ever tried to entertain children with elaborate wood block architecture you will know that their favourite moment is when it all comes crashing down around you. Children are cruel.
This is not (in most cases) aggressive or vindictive behaviour, but rather an experiment in cause and effect. Children can learn emotional regulation, social skills, and the physical laws that govern our world from smashing things up. Furthermore, destruction adds an element of risk to play, allowing children to push the boundaries of their comfort zone and experience the thrill of danger. Of all my faded childhood memories, perhaps my favourite is when me, my brother, and my dad destroyed an old shed filled with lego bionicles using fire and hammers.
Rage rooms are not an outright negative idea. There is a lot of fun to be had smashing things into many pieces or testing your physical strength against something like an old Xbox (the Xbox was stronger than me). However, to tout the idea as a means of stress relief is as misleading as it is dangerous.
As is the case for much of human behaviour, personal accounts are poor evidence. In the promotional videos for these businesses we see our customers shouting things like “Fuck you Mark!” at a glass vase that they’ve just obliterated with a baseball bat. However, the blissful feeling described is not one of peace, but instead the rush of noradrenaline; a chemical closely related to our reward systems. Letting out anger feels good and we want to keep doing it. In the drug addiction sense of “keep doing it”.
If large numbers of people attempt to reduce stress in a way that literally gives you a chemical reward for violent behaviour, we’re going to start seeing greater, not reduced, levels of violence. You feel “calm” because you’ve just come down from an adrenaline high, with your brain primed to associate outbursts of violence with enjoyable stress relief. What is perhaps most troubling is the logic of people like Zaac Spencer, proprietor of Rage Cage in Nottingham, and one of the UK’s early adopters. In a video, Zaac outlines his belief that these rooms could have the ability to reduce violence around the world.
While the beliefs of people like Zaac are totally understandable, they are indicative of a far greater problem: we don’t understand how we work! Human cognition is incredibly complex and often highly misleading. The mind is quick to offer up tantalisingly simple explanations that end up being complete nonsense, leaving us with years of wrongheaded “common sense” to dismantle. We must step lightly when attempting to deal with human emotions and look to the true cause, not the cathartic relief. If your only way of dealing with a situation is violence, you aren’t ready to deal with it at all.