Did You Try to Watch Game of Thrones and Fail? Me Too

A few reasons why watching popular violence isn’t enjoyable for everyone.

Posted May 24, 2019

I have started Game of Thrones three times. Each time I have gotten a little further, with the last failed attempt ending with episode three. I tried watching it because I wanted to stay relevant to the times. The show has become a cultural reference. I also tried watching the show in spite of my three grown sons telling me “Mom, that show is too violent for you.” I honestly wanted to prove them wrong. But after watching the third episode, I conceded. One English friend’s summary of the plot being “tits tits, axe axe” was just about right—and the “axe axe” got to me.

Not All Violence is Created Equal

At the same time I was trying to watch GOT, I was told by my sweetie and one of my boys “you can’t tolerate the negative.” I let this sit with me, since it was coming from two credible sources. In some ways, they are completely right. I can barely tolerate the news these days and I avoid gratuitously violent TV, movies and content (hence my inability to watch GOT). At the same time, I am a child of the 70’s, growing up with Vietnam on the television, and having watched many documentaries about genocide, the Holocaust, apartheid, climate change disasters and numerous other atrocities of our world. I am able to watch in disbelief and sadness about human trafficking and exploitations of all kinds if I feel it is something of which I need to be aware, as a problem to be solved. But the fact that such pain and troubles exist in the world is the very reason I have no tolerance for watching it for entertainment.

Clement M/upsplash
Source: Clement M/upsplash

Interestingly, I can enjoy Endgame and other Marvel movies because they are so far fetched, it doesn’t remind me of the real pain of the world. Thor’s hammer whipping towards blue creatures from another planet that landed in the middle of New York City doesn’t cause me distress, whereas a rape scene, execution or torture (all of which happens in the first three episodes of GOT) makes me want to turn away because I know people are experiencing that today, now.

Why Game of Thrones Is Too Much for Some

If you too are wondering about why you can or can not make it through violent shows with which others seem to have no problem, there are simple explanations that comes from research on media and violence:

1.  Sensitivity  

My kids said I was too sensitive to watch GOT and there is research that suggest they may be right. There is evidence that some people become desensitized to watching violence, with physiological as well as mental emotional responses diminished or reduced by repeated exposure to real and media violence. One study of male college students showed increases in depressive and anxiety symptoms after watching a violent movie, but these negative emotional reactions diminished after several days of repeated exposure to violent movies (Linz et al. 1988) (Please note there were not women in this study). For those of us who don’t watch a lot of violence, our nervous systems might experience strain, causing a loss of enjoyment when exposed to violent content.

 Alice Alinari/Upsplash
Source: Alice Alinari/Upsplash

2. Empathy  

Hoffman defines empathy as "an affective [emotional] response more appropriate to someone else's situation than to one's own" (1987, p. 48).  There is a lot of research evidence that exposure to violence in movies and video games decreased empathy for others and experimental studies show decreases real world helping behaviors (Bushman & Anderson, 2009).  For those of us not watching a lot of violent media, our empathy levels may remain highly in tact or perhaps we have elevated levels of empathy to start. Either way, some of us more naturally over empathize with movie victims, thereby finding highly violent scenes emotionally distressing.

3. Awareness of the power of norms 

Now, as a social psychologist, I might have an additional (and not typical) reason for struggling with GOT and shows like this.  I am hyper aware of the power of media to impact social norms. The National Academy of Sciences report entitled Addressing the Social and Cultural Norms That Underlie the Acceptance of Violence suggests that “Social and cultural norms are highly influential over individual behavior in a broad variety of contexts, including violence and its prevention, because norms can create an environment that can either foster or mitigate violence and its deleterious effects”  (National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine, 2018, p.1). When I see fictional characters raping or torturing others, I think about people in the real world having to experiences these things, and how even fictional depictions feed perceptions of societal norms. In my ideal world, these things don’t happen in fiction OR reality because they are so beyond the norms of society that we wouldn’t accept them in any form.

Standing in the "Light of Kindness"

I may be thought of as a pollyanna. Ultimately, I want kindness to be a guiding social norm and violence against others to be gone from our world entirely—in the real world and in fiction. But that being said, I know many people don’t share my view of the world and I have peace around that. I also recognize that sometimes the dark elements of pain and hurt help us to appreciate the lighter elements of love, joy and peace. But that is another blog post. In the meantime, if you too struggle to watch GOT and movies and shows of that ilk, you will rest assured there may be good reason and you are not alone.

References

Bushman, B., & Anderson, C. (2009). Comfortably numb: Desensitizing effects of violent media on helping others. Psychological Science, 20(3), 273–277.

Hoffman, M. L. (1987). The contribution of empathy to justice and moral judgment. In N. Eisenberg & J. Strayer (Eds.), Empathy and its development (pp. 47-80). Cambridge, England: Cambridge University Press.

Linz D. G.,  Donnerstein, E., Penrod, S. (1988). Effects of long-term exposure to violent and sexually degrading depictions of women. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 55(5), 758–68.

Mrug, S., Madan, A., Cook, E. W., 3rd, & Wright, R. A. (2015). Emotional and physiological desensitization to real-life and movie violence. Journal of youth and adolescence, 44(5), 1092–1108. doi:10.1007/s10964-014-0202-z

National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine. 2018. Addressing the Social and Cultural Norms That Underlie the Acceptance of Violence: Proceedings of a Workshop—in Brief. Washington, DC: The National Academies Press. https://doi.org/10.17226/25075.