Budo, Aggression and Catharsis

It is not uncommon for people involved in budo to claim that their art provides them an outlet or channel for their frustrations and hostility. Further they claim that this makes them less likely to actually participate in aggression or violence. The theory that combative arts (or other physically demanding activities) can provide a healthy outlet for frustration and aggression  is often called “catharsis theory” . Unfortunately there is very little support for this theory. The three articles below discuss the relationship between aggression and various forms of athleticism including combative sports.

Self-reported Hostile Aggression

in Contact Athletes, No Contact Athletes and Non-athletes

Patrice Lemieux, Stuart J. McKelvie and Dale Stout
Department of Psychology
Bishop’s University


To investigate the relationship between athletic participation and off-field hostile aggression, Buss and Perry’s (1992) Aggression Questionnaire (AQ) was completed by two groups of 86 university athletes in either contact or no contact sports and two control groups of 86 non-athletes who were matched to the athletes in physical size. In general, bigger participants scored higher on hostile aggression and reported more fighting than smaller participants, but athletes and non-athletes did not differ. These results contradict the learning and catharsis theories of aggression in sport, and undermine the media image of the belligerent off-field athlete.

Aggression and Catharsis

By Billy E. Pennal, Ph.D.

Although there is some evidence that aggressive behavior can be cathartic, much of this evidence involves fantasied aggression rather than overt aggression. When a physiological measure is used as an indication of aggressive drive, fairly consistent results obtain across studies. Blood pressure appears to reflect a catharsis effect whereas other physiological measures do not. Whether physiological arousal indicates aggressive drive is a problem open to argument.

Most studies supporting a catharsis effect have used dependent measures rather loosely. Measures of aggressive drive obtained from projective tests are open to considerable doubt, and this is the primary type of dependent measure used to measure an instinctual drive. Based on these kinds of measures, fantasied aggression does appear to decrease after some aggressive activity, particularly when that activity is socially sanctioned as in a sporting event.

Making Men of Them: Male Socialization for

Warfare and Combative Sports

Garry Chick
Leisure Studies Program, The Pennsylvania State University, 201 Mateer Building, University Park, PA 16802;

Combative Sport and Sham Combat. In a replication of the hypotheses proposed by Sipes (1973), we found that combative sports— those that involve actual or potential contact between opponents with the object of inflicting real or symbolic injury on opponents, gaining playing field territory, or are patently warlike— are related to frequency of warfare and
homicide in a cross-cultural sample (Chick, Loy, and Miracle 1997). We also noted the existence of a form of activity in some societies, which we termed “sham combat,” that was even more strongly related to warfare (though not to homicide) than individual or team combative sports. These were combat like activities that were not sportive in the sense that they lacked winners and losers and appeared, as often as not, to be training activities for males in the arts of war.

If we assume that the catharsis theory is fundamentally flawed then the following are things that I would be curious about:

1) I would want to know if the rehearsal of violence (training) in my group is  likely to actually encourage aggression in my students.

2) I would want to know if there are other social or psychological processes at work within a training community that mediate the tendency to greater  aggression.

3) I would want to know what I could do to enhance the efficacy of the  suppressive processes active within the group.

4) I would want to know if the tendency to become more aggressive could be suppressed (where appropriate) without compromising students real fighting ability.

I am hoping that we get some good comments on this as I feel it is a particularly important issue.


5 responses to “Budo, Aggression and Catharsis

  1. I would be curious to see what is happening in the brain when either the suppressive or the aggressive process is enabled, in both trained and untrained individuals. Is the same neural network being activated in:

    – a karate student who is actively pulling a strike to avoid hurting a partner during class


    -a aggression-prone individual who has learned some anger management techniques, and is actively suppressing his/her reactions during a bout of rage

    I’d also like to see the opposite. In instances of actual aggressive/violent response:

    -is the karate student triggered to be aggressive first, then consciously using techniques;

    -or is the situation responded to mainly by the frontal or motor (or other) cortices before the limbic-driven aggressive response is acted upon?

    And will there be differences between the trained and untrained individual as far as where the aggressive response is generated- over time, do karate student’s frontal cortex or motor areas initiate the aggressive response before the limbic system initiates aggression? Conversely, are these areas responsible for suppressing the aggressive impulse, even when a violent response is made?

  2. I’m curious to find out what they determined to be contact or combative sports in these studies? Boxing, MMA, football, hocky and rugby are contact/combative sports, but they lack the training in restraint and self-control that you would receive in traditional martial arts. What kind of a difference does that make, I wonder? Perhaps someone should do a study on the aggressiveness of contact/combative sports versus traditional martial arts

  3. Adam says, Seriously, I am not Mr. Karate.

    1. Absolutely not, since I am aware and understand when and how and why I am supposed to use it, according to the use of force ladder and I know the consequences of misuse of it. Face it folks, I don’t want to get raped in jail or deal with the police, plus it is immoral. Training does let out my aggression.

    2. The training group and the spirit within it vary greatly. I never been in a training group full of machismo and unwanted aggression. It was always in a friendly but the training was hardcore (yes, even in Alan Belcher’s gym or at the boxing gym I went to or Krav Maga)

    3. Teach the use of force ladder, more de-escalation training, explain the legality and consequences of misuse, and train in scenarios where de-escalation is a must to successful completion of the exercise, and if in the exercise the opponent attacks you, after counterattacking and the opponent is stopped with the appropriate , the student should immediately retreat and run away.

    In this regard there are many materials such as Bill Kipp (“The Missing Link”, available at Paladin Press http://www.paladin-press.com), Geoff Thompson, Tony Blauer, Luciano Silviera (“The Moment of Truth” available at Paladin Press), Sammy Franco, and Jim Wagner explain how to do this thoroughly and in detail.

    Because I drilled de-escalation and boundary setting a la Bill Kipp multiple times and also in Krav Maga, I never had to hit the guy when I was bullied on the Metrolink. If I did, I would probably be in court! Pre-emptive striking was not appropriate at this time.

    4. Yes. See number three.

    Proper education in pre-conflict, post-conflict methods should be emphasized and practiced as often as possible. Repetition is the mother of skill, and such skills will become automatic if done correctly.

    Unlike football and other contact sports, correct self defense is not a sport, you have many other issues at stake, such as the possiblilty of jail time and the fast that aggression can be stopped from the get go by de-escalation. They don’t have to worry about getting shanked and shot because in their sport sometimes mouthing off and aggression is not rewarded negatively.

    Folks, people sometimes will shoot you for dissing them and mouthing off to them, yes, it is wrong, but being “right” in this case will get you in a one way ticket to the morgue.

    Train as you fight, fight as you train.

    Bowing to each other at the end of each scenario or exercise only will re-enforce this habit on the street. We bow to each other in the beginning and after class, we know from the get go we are not enemies but fellow training partners.

    One time a Helsinki, Finland cop disarmed a bad guy, only to bow and give him the knife. Needless to say, the perp was quite shocked and happy and he took advantage of this. Now the Finnish police academy cut that out of the training.

    If your body is not inoculated to turn on aggression at the flip of a switch, you will take too long to effectively respond to conflict. This belief that FULL CONTACT constant training in realistic scenarios where someone is shouting at you and simulating attention will make you aggressive and make one aggressive and crazy is utter bullshit. All it will do is prepare you for what is real, and if one trains this way daily on a regular basis, you will be much prepared to face reality.

    People must develop a thick skin against verbal and physical aggression. There is no magic wand one can wave to make this easier. Train train train train train.

    THERE IS NO OTHER WAY TO INOCULATE ONESELF AGAINST THIS. Firefighters go in fire towers, so we must face the fire and learn to confront rage and a real live opponent.

    If you train to pull punches like in sport karate, you will pull punches on the street. In that sport you are rewarded for pulling punches, and contact happens accidentally (Kyokushin and offshoots of this are exempt from this, of course). A pulled punch in sparring does not equal a definate KO in a real fight (that is why training with headgear and gloves does wonders to one’s inoculation).

    Imagine, a police officer is told to hesitate pulling the trigger on a perp who is actively aggressing you (officer is using force correctly in this case). The officer would be dead, because he “pulled his punch”!

    The more you train like this, the more your body will get used to it, you will not become aggressive, because your body will automatically respond with de-escalation/defense according to the use of force. The body will associate de-escalation and egress with

    The police don’t shoot to kill, they SHOOT TO STOP unless they are SWAT or snipers. The military trains to kill mostly, except in missions (increasing nowadays) where the range of use of force is now greater.

    Since you train to run away after you strike the opponent and he goes down, your body will do it.

    CONCLUSION: We have to train to be sheepdogs, not aggressive and predatory like wolves, or in denial like sheep. See the following article:

    By LTC(RET) Dave Grossman, RANGER, Ph.D.,author of “On Killing.”


    Noah, MMA fighters show restraint and self control, not all MMA fighters are immature like Ken Shamrock, Tito Ortiz, and Ralph Gracie. Traditional fighters like Dominique Valera and the guy who KOed the ref with a kick in the Olympics in taekwondo made the news, not MMA fighters. The JKA and the Takushoku class was full of bullies and aggressive nutcases, and they are considered “traditional”. The World Taekwondo Federation (who espouse traditional values) are filled in its leadership with assholes who ripped off the American taekwondo population by overcharging for certificates and being racists towards Americans.

    Saying traditional arts are less aggressive and immature is like the pot calling the kettle black.

    Compared to many college sports teams, how often do you hear about pro kickboxers and MMA fighters and boxers misbehaving? (With the exception of Mike Tyson, most boxers I know are a-okay people, not belligerant.

  4. On an unrelated note, this line of thought makes me wonder about a question I’ve had for a while. As someone who studied language in college and who has a facility with more than one tongue, I wonder where exactly karate is “stored” in the brain. There is a symbolic interpretive aspect, whether that be in looking at a kata and understanding what someone intends in a movement, or in looking at someone fighting and being able to discern whether or not they’ve had training, and what that training was, based on their movements, etc. The functional aspect is in application; when doing partner work, or in sparring, what areas are most heavily used?

    There was a Nat’l Geographic article two years ago that discussed a bilingual patient who was having a tumor removed from her brain. Because she was bilingual, the surgeon wanted to be sure he wasn’t operating in areas that would destroy her abilities in either language. During surgery, the surgeon had an assistant show her pictures and ask for responses in both English and Spanish. Spanish, being her dominant language, was located in the usual areas for language processing. English, being her second language, was housed in a whole different area of the cortex. What I wondered after reading this is, if you had a martial artist on the table, and the assistant was instead demonstrating various techniques or segments of kata, which areas would recognition of these movements map onto? Obviously the motor areas are involved, but so are visual and kinesthetic ones, and all of that might technically be processed by a different associative region. If symbolic representation is involved, language skills begin to become involved. I tend to think that recognition would be linked closely to language processing for someone who has trained in kata application for a long period of time. A guiding principle of current neurology is “the neurons that fire together wire together.” Brain areas that have maps for different skills will grow together into one map the more two skills/activities are practiced together, and these maps may move in terms of their physical location in the brain tissue over time.

    Circling back around to the topic, is a link developed between recognition of aggressive behaviors and fighting techniques and the primary area where karate associations are made/stored?

  5. And that doesn’t have to be restricted to karate; any combat art/sport that has guiding principles or rules (even ring rules) might be included.

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