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

Does the violence in media desensitize us to actual violence? See pictures of video game systems.

Media can have a real emotional impact on us. If they didn't, we wouldn't have entertainment in the first place -- anything you put in front of us would be greeted with waves of indifference. Instead, we cry at sad movies, laugh at outrageous comedies and pump our fist whenever Bruce Willis makes something explode. What we see in films and video games invokes a physical response.

But can that response be harmful? Is it true that violent content in our entertainment can desensitize us to the real thing? Are our favorite films, shows and video games turning us all into sociopaths?

Desensitization is a real phenomenon. Therapists use desensitization techniques to help people deal with problems like phobias. By exposing a patient to stimuli that will trigger the fear response in a controlled, supportive environment, a therapist can guide the patient to deal with his or her response. Over time, the patient's responses become less acute. If the therapy works as it should, the patient will be able to cope with his or her phobia, perhaps even to the point that the patient no longer experiences fear or discomfort when confronted with the subject of he or she fears most.

Researchers have conducted dozens of studies designed to examine our reaction to observing violence in the media. Some have used a technique called meta-analysis. In this approach, researchers look at the results of multiple studies to see if there are any trends or common elements among them. Meanwhile, skeptics have said many of the studies were flawed or failed to report negative results.

It's true that designing a study to determine the psychological effect of any one variable is difficult. It may be impossible to create the perfect study. So, how can you measure the impact of media violence on a particular individual's personality or behavior? To do so, you'd have to eliminate all other variables that could influence the subject. That includes everything from the subject's support system to his or her social status. It's not practical.

But even if we acknowledge that no single study is flawless, the number of studies drawing a correlation between watching violent movies or shows -- or playing violent video games -- and a general desensitization to violence is impressive. Next, we'll look at how violent media might affect you in the short and long term.