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.

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.

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.

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  • Bargh, John A., et al. "Automaticity of Social Behavior: Direct Effects of Trait Construct and Stereotype Activation on Action." Journal of Personality and Social Psychology. 1996.,%201996.pdf
  • Bartholow, Bruce D., et al. "Chronic violent video game exposure and desensitization to violence: Behavioral and event-related brain potential data." Journal of Experimental Social Psychology. 2006.
  • Bushman, Brad J. and Anderson, Craig A. "Media Violence and the American Public." American Psychologist. June/July 2001. Vol. 56, No. 6/7. pp. 477-489.
  • Bushman, Brad J. and Anderson, Craig A. "Violent Video Games and Hostile Expectations: A Test of the General Aggression Model." Personality And Social Psychology Bulletin. Dec. 2002. Vol. 28, No. 12. pp. 1679 - 1686.
  • Cantor, Joanne. "Media Violence And Children's Emotions: Beyond The 'Smoking Gun.'" American Psychological Association. Aug. 5, 2000. (Aug. 13, 2010)
  • Olson, Cheryl K. "Media Violence Research and Youth Violence Data: Why Do They Conflict?" Academic Psychiatry. June 2004. Vol. 28. pp. 144-150.
  • Potter, W. James. "The 11 Myths of Media Violence." Sage Publications. Thousand Oaks, California. 2003.