Media Violence

“About 350 characters appear each night on prime-time TV, but studies show an average of seven of these people are murdered every night. If this rate applied in reality, then in just 50 days everyone in the United States would be killed and the last left could turn off the TV”.

Michael Medved

Despite the omnipresence of media violence, it is too rarely discussed. Perhaps it is in part because most of us have watched our share of violent media, and few of us believe that we have been affected. Of course, the massive profits at stake are also a factor in ensuring that a real societal debate doesn’t happen. However, this has resulted in little reflection on the wisdom of spending hours watching people being brutally assaulted or perpetrating horrific acts over and over again in our virtual lives.

Perpetrators of violence believe that what they are doing is legitimate, normal, and effective, and, perhaps that “it makes one a man”, demonstrates one’s “power”, or is “fun”.  Our attitudes about violence shape our behaviour; this may seem too obvious to point out, but violence is so much part of our culture that many of us no longer notice the extent to which our entertainment media normalizes it.  Apparently, the average customer in Canada’s gun industry today is a young man seeking to buy the latest ‘tacti-cool’ military style weapon that they see in their war-themed video game (“Hot Trend: Bring on the Tacti-Cool”, The Montreal Gazette 26 Oct 2011). It is important to keep in mind that humans typically respond negatively to scenes of extreme violence and, as Jeffrey Goldstein notes in his interesting book, Why We Watch, the way we respond to violent imagery is shaped by our culture. Norwegians, for example, raised in a culture which highly values nonviolence, apparently found the children’s film E.T. to be too violent for children under 12 (Fry 2006).

In the hundreds of studies conducted over forty decades, the research into media violence has proved conclusive: while media violence is not a sufficient or necessary cause of violence, it does cause increased aggessiveness and violent behavior. Research in neuroscience is also showing us how this happens. Much of our thinking, perhaps as much as 98%, is reflexive, occurring below the level of consciousness; our brains filter and analyze our surroundings and activate certain schema that we then use to shape our responses (Lakoff 2008). The more we watch violent media or play violent video games, the more easily and frequently that violent thoughts, feelings and scripts are activated, along with positive emotional reactions, while the normal negative emotions that are typically aroused when we confront conflict, aggression and violence are reduced and nonviolent scripts become less easily activated (Anderson, et al., in Psychological Science in the Public Interest 4.3). Individuals thus become primed to interpret social encounters in an aggressive way.

The power of this kind of socialization has also been demonstrated by the work of Lt. Col David Grossman on how soldiers are psychologically prepared for combat. While much evidence points to us having an innate inhibition against killing other human beings, military training is devoted to weakening this inhibition. Militaries have become very effective at this, bringing about what Grossman terms a revolution in warfare; while in the past the rate of soldiers who would not fire when faced with an enemy in close proximity was high, modern militaries have dramatically solved this “problem” by training soldiers to practice shooting repeatedly at other human beings, and violent video games have become the preferred means to accomplish this goal.

While most of us will not be affected to the extent that we engage in violent behaviour, more subtle processes are also at work: a normalization of violence, a weakening in our normal negative emotional responses to the use of violence by others and a desensitization to suffering. Human empathy, we must remember, is fragile, biologically-rooted, but less heritable than our negative emotions, thus needing more environmental reinforcement (Keltner in The Compassionate Instinct, 2010). Unfortunately, popular culture is frequently doing the opposite and a recent study from the University of Michigan that suggested that college students today are almost 40% less empathetic than they were 20-30 years ago should raise our concern (“From Students, Less Kindness for Strangers?”  New York Times 27 June 2010); in contrast, we can take hope from a 2001 Stanford University study that found a significant reduction in physical aggression and a 50% decrease in verbal aggression in schools, with the most aggressive kids benefiting the most, from simply encouraging kids to turn off their TVs and video games for just 20 weeks (Robinson et al., in Archives of Pediatric and Adolescent Medicine 155)

Read some of the psychological literature on media violence by one of the leading researchers, Craig Anderson


watch an interview with psychologist and military historian, Lt. Col. David Grossman, where he discusses how militaries break down our inhibition to killing and the implication this has for media violence.

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