Ulterior Motives

How goals, both seen and unseen, drive behavior

What you don’t know can hurt you: Violence, catharsis, and video games

Believing in catharsis may lead to behavior that promotes anger.

Grand Theft Auto IV
Grand Theft Auto IV
Periodically in this blog, I have explored the positive and negative effects of video games. In a previous post, I discussed that playing violent video games can promote aggression. One reason why this may be a problem is that many people think that playing video games may lead to catharsis. That is, by playing a violent video game, they may release some of their aggression so that they don't take it out on anyone in the world.

So, here is the problem in a nutshell. If someone holds the belief that playing a violent video game will help them to blow off steam when they are angry, then they may choose to play violent video games when they are angry. The violent video game may actually promote aggressive behaviors rather than stopping them. So, people may unwillingly make themselves more aggressive when they intended to make themselves less aggressive.

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This is only a problem, though, if people who are angry and who believe in catharsis actually seek out violent video games as a way of trying to find a healthy outlet for their aggression.

This issue was addressed in a paper by Brad Bushman and Jodi Whitaker in the June, 2010 issue of Psychological Science.

Punching Bag
Punching Bag
In one study, they measured how strongly people believed in catharsis by looking at whether they typically performed actions consistent with catharsis like slamming doors when angry to try to get their anger out. Then, they manipulated people's anger by having them write an essay. The low anger group was given feedback on their essay that it was one of the best that the evaluator had ever read. The high anger group was given negative feedback that the essay was one of the worst that the evaluator had ever read.

After the anger manipulation, people were told about a number of video games, some that were violent and others that were not and they were asked how interested they were in playing those games. Overall, people found the violent video games more attractive than the nonviolent games. When people were not angered, then their interest in the games was not affected by how strongly they believed in catharsis. When people were angered, though, they were much more likely to want to play a violent video game if they believed in catharsis than if they did not.

There is a way out of this problem, though. In another study, people read fictitious articles that either suggested that catharsis was effective or that it was not. The participants in this study went through the same anger manipulation as before and evaluated their interested in violent and nonviolent video games. In this case, people's interest in violent video games increased with their anger only for the group that read that catharsis was effective. The group that read that catharsis was not effective did not show an increase in their interest in violent video games when angry.

This work suggests that people's mistaken beliefs about catharsis may really be a problem. If people seek out violent video games as a way of letting out their anger, their actions may have the opposite effect from the one they expected. In this case, then, ignorance is not bliss.

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Art Markman, Ph.D., is a cognitive scientist at the University of Texas whose research spans a range of topics in the way people think.

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