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Why do people deny violent media effects?

Many people ignore overwhelming scientific evidence on violent media effects.

As a researcher of violent video games, there is one question that I am constantly asked: “I’ve played violent video games for years.  Why am I not a killer?” My answer is usually pretty simple.  You come from a good, stable home.  You have friends.  You weren’t bullied in school.  You have a healthy brain. Violent behavior is very complex and is caused by many factors, usually acting together. Violent video game exposure is not the only risk factor for violence, or even the most important factor, but it is not a trivial factor either.

People want to believe that if millions of people play violent video games and they don’t all become killers, then those games must be harmless. Unfortunately, that’s not true.  We haven’t “proven” video games directly cause violence because it can’t be proven. There is no way to ethically run experiments that see if some threshold of playing a violent game like Call of Duty may push a person into violence. But that doesn’t mean we are left without evidence. We know that video game violence is certainly correlated with violence[1] – just like smoking is correlated with lung cancer. However, this does not mean that the research does not show causal effects; in fact it does, over and over again. We recently conducted a comprehensive review of 136 articles reporting 381 effects involving over 130,000 participants from around the world.[2] These studies show that violent video games increase aggressive thoughts, angry feelings, physiological arousal (e.g., heart rate, blood pressure), and aggressive behavior. Violent games also decrease helping behavior and feelings of empathy for others. The effects occurred for males and females of all ages, regardless of what country they lived in. So the question then becomes why people and journalists repeatedly shrug off this compelling body of work. Psychological theories offer six reasons why.

 

Fallacious Reasoning

Many people think that violent media have no effect because they’ve never killed anyone after watching a violent TV program or film or after playing a violent video game. It is not surprising that people who consume violent media have not killed anyone because very few people kill anyone. For example, fewer than 5 people per 100,000 are murdered each year in the United States.[3] It is very difficult to predict rare events, such as murder, using exposure to violent media or any other risk factor. However, murder is the most noticeable violent event to most people; so when they don’t have “available” in memory many cases of people viewing media violence and then murdering others, they ignore the very low base rate for murder and incorrectly conclude that media violence has no effect.[4] They do this despite the fact that one can predict less extreme and more common violent behaviors from media violence viewing. For example, in one 15-year longitudinal study, heavy viewers of violent TV shows in first and third grade were three times more likely to be convicted of criminal behavior by the time they were in their 20s, and were significantly more likely to abuse their spouses and assault others.[5]

 

Cognitive Dissonance Reduction

According to cognitive dissonance theory, conflicting thoughts cause psychological discomfort (called “cognitive dissonance”).[6] For example, if people frequently play violent video games and think they are fun, they feel uncomfortable about the thought that violent games may also be harmful. The easiest way to reduce this discomfort is for people to rationalize their behavior by bringing their attitudes into line with their actions. Thus people might reason, “I enjoy violent games and it would be disconcerting to think something I enjoy might be harmful; therefore, the research must be wrong.” Of course violent media isn’t the only thing people enjoy that might harm them. There are many other examples, such as French-fries, chocolates and other unhealthy food, alcohol, tobacco, and street drugs.

 

Psychological Reactance Theory

Most of us don’t like it when people tell us what to do. According to psychological reactance theory[7], we desire to have freedom of choice and therefore have a negative, aversive reaction (called “reactance”) to having some of their our or options taken away by other people or by external forces. Reactance produces three main consequences. First, it makes you want the forbidden option more and/or makes it seem more attractive. Second, reactance may make you take steps to try to reclaim the lost option. Third, you may feel or act aggressively toward the person who has restricted your freedom (e.g., researchers like me who study violent video game effects!). Consistent with reactance theory, research has shown that labels designed to warn consumers about potentially objectionable material in TV programs, films, video games, and music often have the opposite effect of making them more interested in the “forbidden” media.[8]

 

Catharsis Theory

According to catharsis theory, expressing anger produces a healthy release of emotion and is therefore good for the psyche. For example, people may think that killing enemies in a violent video game will help them get rid of their anger. Catharsis theory, which can be traced back through Sigmund Freud to Aristotle, is elegant and appealing, but it has not stood up to scientific scrutiny.[9] Indeed, expressing anger often has the opposite effect of increasing angry feelings and aggressive impulses. Because people often feel better after expressing anger, they incorrectly assume that catharsis theory is true. However, people also feel good after eating chocolates or French fries or drinking beer or taking street drugs. A good feeling is not the “acid test” of whether something actually works. Research also shows that the good feeling is positively (rather than negatively) linked to aggression.[10]

 

Third Person Effect

Researchers have consistently found that people believe the media have a much stronger effect on others than on themselves—called the third-person effect.[11] People may also believe that media violence may affect some “susceptible” people (e.g., the mentally ill), but it will not affect them personally. The third person effect may be related to reactance theory. If viewers admit that the media is influencing them, then they would also have to admit they are being controlled to some extent by the media.

 

Denial From the Entertainment Industry

The entertainment industry frequently claims that violent media do not increase aggression,[12] even though it is obviously in the economic self-interest of the entertainment industry to make such claims. In 1972, the U.S. Surgeon General issued a warning about the harmful effects of TV violence.[13] Since then, the scientific evidence has grown even stronger, but news reports claim less harm. Indeed, most Americans aren’t even aware that the U.S. Surgeon General issued a warning about TV violence in 1972, perhaps because the mass media has not publicized it. The entertainment industry might be reluctant to admit that they are marketing a harmful product, much like the tobacco industry was reluctant to admit that cigarettes are harmful. It is a paradox. On the one hand, the TV industry claims that a few minutes of advertising can sell soap, salsa, cereal, and even political candidates to viewers. Indeed, a 30-second ad for the 2013 Super Bowl cost about $4 million.[14] On the other hand, the TV industry claims that the hours of programming surrounding the few minutes of advertising have no effect on viewers.

 

People Don't Understand Psychological Processes as Much as Biological Processes

If you see a violent video game player assault another person, it is difficult to know the direct cause of the assault. Was it playing violent video games for hours on end, or was it something else? Psychological processes are not as intuitive as biological processes to most people. People are probably more accepting of the idea that smoking causes lung cancer, for example, because it is much easier to grasp the idea that smoke going into the lungs damages cells and starts tumor growth.

 

Summary[15]

These processes combine to create an atmosphere in which people come to conclude that violent media are not harmful, even though hundreds of studies conducted over several decades have shown that violent media are in fact harmful,[16] and the overwhelming majority of social scientists working in the area now accept that media violence poses a danger to society.[17]Most of us don’t like to admit that the things we enjoy doing might also be bad for us, whether that be playing violent video games or eating chocolate. One key difference between eating mass quantities of high sugar foods and playing violent video games is that in the first case, you are the only person who is harmed by the action, whereas in the second, there is potential to harm others.

 

Recommended Reading

Huesmann, L. R., & Taylor, L. D. (2003).  The case against the case against media violence. In D. Gentile (Ed.) Media Violence and Children,  (pp. 107-130).  Westport: Connecticut: Greenwood Press.

Huesmann, L. R., Dubow, E. F. & Yang, G. (2013). Why it is hard to believe that media violence causes aggression. In K. E. Dill (Ed.), The Oxford Handbook of Media Psychology, (pp. 159-171). Oxford, UK: Oxford University Press. 

 

[1] Savage, J. (2008). The effects of media violence exposure on criminal aggression: A meta-analysis. Criminal Justice and Behavior, 35, 1123-1136.

[2] Anderson, C. A., Shibuya, A., Ihori, N., Swing, E. L., Bushman, B. J., Sakamoto, A., Rothstein, H. R., Saleem, M., & Barlett, C. P. (2010). Violent video game effects on aggression, empathy, and prosocial behavior in Eastern and Western countries: A meta-analytic review. Psychological Bulletin, 136(2), 151-173.

[3] U.S. Federal Bureau of Investigation. (2012). Uniform crime reports. Washington, DC: U. S. Government Printing Office.

[4] Tversky, A., & Kahneman, D. (1973). Availability: A heuristic for judging frequency and probability. Cognitive Psychology, 5, 207-232.

[5] Huesmann, L. R., Moise-Titus, J., Podolski, C. L., & Eron, L. D. (2003). Longitudinal relations between children's exposure to TV violence and their aggressive and violent behavior in young adulthood: 1977–1992. Developmental Psychology, 39, 201-221.

[6] Festinger, L. (1957). A theory of cognitive dissonance, Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press.

[7] Brehm, J. W. (1966). A theory of psychological reactance. New York: Academic Press.

[8] Bushman, B. J., & Cantor, J. (2003). Media ratings for violence and sex: Implications for policy makers and parents. American Psychologist, 58,130–141.

[9] Geen, R. G., & Quanty, M. B. (1977). The catharsis of aggression: An evaluation of a hypothesis. In L. Berkowitz (Ed.), Advances in experimental social psychology (Vol. 10, pp. 1–37). New York: Academic Press.

[10] Bushman, B. J., Baumeister, R. F., & Stack, A. D. (1999). Catharsis, aggression, and persuasive influence: Self-fulfilling or self-defeating prophecies? Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 76, 367-376.

[11] Davison, W. P. (1983). The third-person effect in communication. Public Opinion Quarterly, 47, 1-15.

[12] Bushman, B. J., & Anderson, C. A. (2001). Media violence and the American public: Scientific facts versus media misinformation. American Psychologist, 56, 477-489.

[13] Steinfeld, J. (1972).  Statement in hearings before Subcommittee on Communications of Committee on Commerce (United States Senate, Serial #92-52, pp. 25-27).  Washington, DC:  United States Government.

[14] http://www.nytimes.com/2013/01/09/business/media/a-sellout-for-su...

[15] I would like to thank Dara Greenwood, Jeff Grabmeier, and Rowell Huesmann for their helpful comments on an earlier draft of this blog.

[16] For a review see Bushman, B. J., & Huesmann, L. R. (2012). Effects of violent media on aggression. In D. G. Singer & J. L. Singer (Eds.), Handbook of children and the media (2nd edition) (Ch. 12, pp. 231-248). Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage.

[17] Murray, J. P. (1984). Results of an informal poll of knowledgeable persons concerning the impact of television violence. Newsletter of the American Psychological Association Division of Child, Youth, and Family Services, 7(1), 2.

Brad Bushman, Ph.D., is a Professor of Communication and Psychology at Ohio State University and a Professor of Communication Science at the VU University Amsterdam.

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