Why Are We Offended by Media Violence?

A new study explores why we may (or may not) object to violence in the media.

Posted Nov 02, 2016

Even for many die-hard fans of the long-running AMC drama, The Walking Dead, the gruesome violence of the Season Seven premiere, including the brutal deaths of two well-liked characters, proved to be too much to handle.  According to one fan reporting afterward on social media, “I consider myself well versed when it comes to horror and violent movies and shows in general but this was just something else,” they wrote. “I found this episode a too disturbing even for TWD standards.”  But other fans praised the opening episode and declared it to be one of the best ever seen on the show. 

Violence in movies, television, books, and music is certainly common enough these days.  According to some estimates, average television and movie viewer will have seen 20,000 violent deaths or more over the course of a lifetime. For many producers of movies and television, the shock value provided by violence often helps to draw in viewers and boost ratings.  

Even in video games, there has been a sharp rise in extremely violent content including games such as Manhunt, in which players murder, maim, and torture victims to score points.  Despite efforts to rein in violent content, including the use of rating systems to warn potential viewers, researchers are still concerned over the possible desensitizing effects of media violence and the impact it might have on aggression in the real world.

One factor that seems to determine whether violent content is "too much" for viewers to handle is the basic concept of offensiveness.  In other words, whether or not what people are seeing on the screen will arouse feelings of disgust or discomfort.  While often difficult to define, or even measure, media offensiveness is usually applied to sexual content, especially sexual content deemed unsuitable for children or demeaning to women.  How offensiveness can apply to violent content has been largely neglected by researchers until fairly recently.

To fill this gap, new research published in the journal Psychology of Popular Media Culture examines how viewers respond to media violence and what shapes their judgments about what they find offensive. Written by Sarah M. Coyne of Brigham Young University and a team of fellow researchers, the study explored many of the reasons people give for how they make judgments about what offends them. The study also explores the role feelings of offensiveness may play in the link between media violence and aggression.

In their study, Coyne and colleagues use the General Aggression Model (GAM) to help understand how people respond to violence.  First developed by Craig Anderson and Brad Bushman, the GAM states that every episode of aggression requires three critical stages: person and situational inputs, present internal states (cognitive and emotional), and outcomes of appraisal and decision-making processes.  According to the model, aggression can become a learned concept associated with specific beliefs or behaviors which can make it occur automatically in future episodes.  This can lead to future violence as well as explain why violence often escalates over time. 

The study used a sample of 1,429 participants, half of whom were recruited from a state university in the Midwest and the other half from a private religious college in the Western United States.  All of the participants completed a series of online questionnaires measuring how offended they would feel if presented with different images of violence in the media.  For the purpose of the study, offended was defined as "feelings of repulsion and/or feeling uncomfortable."  Along with being asked how offended they felt on encountering violence in six different mediums (books, movies, TV, advertising, music, and video games), they were also also asked if their views on offensiveness would be different if they experienced it either alone or with other people such as parents, children, age peers, or members of the opposite sex.  

To provide a comparison, they were also asked similar questions about their impressions of profanity and sexual content in the media.  Participants were also asked about their religious beliefs, general views on aggression, and the kind of television programs they typically watched.  Finally, they were asked to answer an open-ended question about why (or why not) they felt offended by violence in the media and how offended they would feel about encountering aggression in real life.

Researchers found that participants were generally more offended by real-life violence than they were by any kind of media violence.  As for media violence in particular, participants reported being more offended by violence in music and advertising than what they might encounter in movies or television. 

There were also clear gender differences, with women tending to be more offended by media violence than men.  Men also reported being more desensitized to violence than women and also more likely to consider media violence to be a normal part of life.  Religion seems to be another factor that can affect how people view media violence.  Men reporting strong religious views were more likely to report being offended by violence in the media (while it doesn't appear to have been a factor for women).

As for specific reasons people tend to give for finding media violence offensive, they tended to focus on a few themes: being offended by how violence is often glamorized, regarding violence as inhumane, or empathy towards the victims.  For many participants who denied feeling offended, the most common reason given was that the violence they were seeing tended to be unrealistic.  Overall however, most participants were particularly offended by violence directed against women or children and are especially offended if they are watching this kind of violence with children or close family members present.  

The most important point raised by Coyne et al. in discussing their findings is that how people view media violence depends on personal and situational factors that can shape whether they feel disgust or find it entertaining.  In general, people continue to be more offended by sexual content and profanity than they are by violence, and the trend toward greater violence in the media isn't likely to reverse itself anytime soon.  While more research is definitely needed, we have to understand the implications of this growing desensitization toward media violence and how it might affect the way people respond to violence in real life.