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Does violence in movies and video games desensitize us to the real thing?


Effects of Violence in the Media
We aren't sure about the extent of the effect violence in the media has on us. Parental guidance is suggested.
We aren't sure about the extent of the effect violence in the media has on us. Parental guidance is suggested.
Creatas/Creatas/Thinkstock

Normally, we react with a heightened sense of alertness and aggression when we witness violence. When we empathize with the person being attacked, we want them to escape. When we feel for a wronged character who is about to enact revenge, our own desire to commit violence increases. Anyone who has cheered in a theater after watching the hero deck the villain has felt this sense of vicarious aggression.

Scientists have tried to determine if that sense we feel in the theater lasts beyond our exposure to the violence. Do we carry that heightened sense of danger and aggression with us as we leave? Several studies suggest that we do.

In one such study, researchers prepared two groups of subjects. The researchers engaged the first group's sense of hostility using subtle aggressive cues. The second group acted as a control and received neutral cues. Then, in what the two groups thought was a second experiment, the researchers told the subjects to listen to another participant's responses to a series of questions. Each time the participant got a question wrong, the subject was to administer an electric shock to punish the participant.

Subjects who received the aggressive cues beforehand administered longer shocks than the control group. This led the researchers to believe that people who observe violence transfer the data they observe into their own behavior [source: Bargh, John A., et al.].

Other studies produced similar results. Researchers noticed that children who watched programming that featured violence would incorporate more aggressive, violent behaviors in their play with others. Over time, such exposure may lead to decreased physiological responses. Just as people seeking treatment for phobias may get better after repeated exposure, people may experience diminished emotional response to violence after witnessing it in movies, television and video games.

That doesn't mean that you'll become an aggressive bully if you consume media loaded with violence. Even some of the most vocal researchers, like Dr. Craig A. Anderson of Iowa University, argue that media violence is just one factor that can contribute to your behavior. But Dr. Anderson also says that even if only a relatively few people transfer violence they perceive into their own behavior it can create an enormous impact on society [source: Bushman and Anderson].

Other researchers aren't as concerned about the extent of the effect. While Dr. Cheryl K. Olson writes that many -- but not all -- studies show a causal effect between violent video games and aggressive behavior, she argues that there's not enough evidence to suggest such stimuli can push a person to behave in seriously violent ways. Dr. Olson also criticizes the meta-analysis approach, pointing out that one study may have different parameters from another and to combine studies to look for overall trends isn't scientifically sound [source: Olson].

Without knowing the impact media violence has on us, it's difficult to know what to do about it. Parents should monitor what their kids consume as entertainment. Agencies like the Motion Picture Association of America can continue to provide consumers with information about the content of films. And we can educate ourselves about how entertainment affects us so that we can monitor ourselves.

Learn more about the media and how we respond to entertainment by following the links on the next page.