Ulterior Motives

How goals, both seen and unseen, drive behavior

Frustration and Violent Video Games

When you avoid a taboo, that increases the attraction of violent video games.

If you talk to people who enjoy violent video games, they give many reasons for playing.  Some just like the chance to do things that they would never do in real life.  Others enjoy the chance to get together with friends and play.  Still others see violent video games as a chance to escape the stresses of daily life and blow off a little steam.

Of course, one problem with asking people why they engage in a behavior is that they often don’t have real insight into the factors that influence their behavior.  As I often say, the reason that so many people need therapy and counseling in their lives is because they are not entirely sure why they do what they do.

An interesting paper in the April 2013 issue of Psychological Science by Jodi Whitaker, Andre Melzer, Georges Steffgen, and Brad Bushman explored the role of taboo behaviors and frustration in men’s interest in violent video games.

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Taboo behaviors are things like cheating and stealing that people know are wrong.  When people are tempted to do something wrong, it is arousing.  They engage in a battle between the strength of the temptation and their willpower.  And, as studies by Dan Ariely and his colleagues point out, we often fail in our efforts to do the right thing.

Presumably, though, if you give in to temptation, then the arousal that comes with the temptation subsides.  If you have the chance to steal a candy bar and you do it, then you no longer feel the temptation so strongly.  If you have the chance to steal that candy bar, and suddenly realize that you are being watched, then you can’t give in to the temptation, but you still may feel the strength of that temptation.  That may cause frustration.

Whitaker, Melzer, Steffgen, and Bushman suggest that this frustration may make violent video games seem more attractive to play than they would be otherwise. 

To test this proposal, college men were brought to the lab and asked to estimate the weight of two common objects using quarters.  They would take a stack of quarters out of a bowl and try to find a stack that was about equal in weight to the object.  (Men were run in this study because women are much less likely than men to be interested in playing violent video games.)

Some participants were given no chance to steal.  The door to the experiment room was kept open, and the experimenter stood watching the participant throughout the study.  A second group of participants was told that the door would be kept closed throughout the study.  These participants had the opportunity to steal some quarters if they wanted.  A third group of participants was told that the door would be kept closed throughout the study, but midway through the experiment, the experimenter came back in and said that actually the door had to be kept open.  This group had the temptation to steal made active, but were then blocked from stealing.

After estimating the weight of the objects, participants rated their current mood, which included a measure of their level of frustration.  Then, they completed a short survey about video games.  They listed the games they play frequently and also rated the attractiveness of eight games.  Half of these games were violent games, and the other half were not violent games. 

Participants who were in a closed room throughout the study did steal some quarters.  On average, participants took almost 75 cents.  Those who had only a limited chance to steal took about 35 cents on average.  Those participants who were in an open room for the whole experiment rarely stole.  As you might expect, the group that had a brief opportunity to steal were significantly more frustrated at the end of the study than those who either had a chance to steal or had no chance to steal at all.

Overall, participants rated the nonviolent video games more attractive than the violent games.  However, the group that briefly had the chance to steal found the violent games significantly more attractive than either of the other groups.  The group that had a chance to steal throughout the study found the violent video games more attractive than those who had no chance to steal.  Statistical analyses demonstrated that the degree of attractiveness of the violent video games for these groups could be explained by people’s level of frustration.

A second study obtained the same pattern of results using cheating on a quiz rather than stealing as the taboo behavior. 

This research suggests that people are attracted to violent video games when they are aroused by a temptation and frustrated in their pursuit of that temptation.  However, there is still an open question about why this happens.  One possibility is that people are attracted to violent video games when they are frustrated, because they hope that playing the game will relieve the frustration.  A second possibility is that this frustration creates arousal and that this arousal makes action attractive. 

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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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