What happens when you don't vent? For a demonstration, most people would suggest putting a nice plump, unpunctured potato on high in the microwave for a few minutes and watching what happens.

By this metaphor, complaining to let off a little steam is entirely healthy. No one wants to experience the emotional equivalent of the inside of that microwave. But does the commonsense understanding of venting, implied in the very term we use for the behavior, actually line up with science? Does venting really prevent emotional explosions?

The commonsense view of venting is wrong.

As sensible as venting at first appears, a new study published in the European Journal of Work and Organizational Psychology suggests that people aren't all that much like potatoes after all. Verbalizing your anger, this research shows, doesn't dissipate it. Instead, complaining just makes us feel worse.

To figure out just how venting really affects professionals, the research team behind the new research asked 112 employees in a variety of industries to keep detailed diaries of their workdays, recording negative events that happened and rating their severity, as well as writing down their moods, how much they complained, and whether they'd exaggerated the seriousness of any negative incidents.

A clear pattern emerged -- the more a person vented, the worse they felt their days had gone. Complaining also took a toll on people's mood, and not just during the day when they engaged in it.

"They not only reported lower momentary mood and less satisfaction and pride with the work they'd been doing that same day, but they also tended to experience lower mood the next morning, measured in a separate diary entry, and lower pride in next-day accomplishments," reports the British Psychological Society Research Digest blog write-up of the results.

Why venting doesn't work

Why doesn't venting work as well for people as it does for potatoes? The researchers offer a couple of possible explanations. First, complaining simply keeps negative events in our minds for longer. It's hard to forget about an annoyance while you're bitching about it.

Second, bad energy is catching. You can complain to the wrong person, dragging an innocent into a negative situation or sparking office drama. But even if you direct your venting at fellow sufferers, they're likely to feel worse too after hearing your moaning. In short, not only does complaining tend to make you feel worse about the situation, it can actually objectively make the situation worse by spreading suspicion, gloom, and anger.

What's the best response to work annoyances then? Not bottling them up, the researchers clarify. Ignoring conflict doesn't help solve it, so silence isn't a good option either. The best approach is either constructive dialogue that actually helps resolve problems or expressive writing, which science suggests helps us clear our minds rather than sucking us into repetitive negative thoughts.

Do these study results mesh with your personal experience?

Published on: Apr 5, 2017
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