For years now, psychologists have been very effectively using desensitization therapy to treat patients who have phobias.
Hardly anyone likes cockroaches, but there are some people who suffer from an irrational fear of these insects. Now researchers have developed software that simulates repeated exposure to virtual cockroaches.
“The results were a stunning: Study subjects went from a phobia so profound that it interfered with their lives to passing a “test” that involved walking into a room containing a cockroach in a tupperware container, removing its lid and placing their hand in it for at least a few seconds.”
People with normal levels of empathy are distressed when exposed to violence and suffering. The question is, does repeated exposure to violence and/or suffering reduce this distress reaction. In other words, does repeated exposure to violence and suffering make people more callous and less empathetic. According to the science, the answer is an emphatic yes:
“To understand the effects of repeated exposure to violence, researchers have suggested that viewers become comfortable with violence that is initially anxiety provoking, much as they would if they were undergoing exposure therapy.”
“After college freshmen watched three violent films over a five-day period, their sympathy for domestic violence victims plummeted. But five days later, their attitudes had pretty much returned to normal levels. Even so, there could be a cumulative effect to a steady diet of violent videos, researchers warn. Like a tennis ball that loses a bit of its bounce with every match, viewer attitudes might rebound less by the time they reach Friday the 13th, Part 23.”
“Cross-lagged panel analyses showed significant pathways from T1 media violence usage to higher physical aggression and lower empathy at T2.”
“Violent video games and movies make people numb to the pain and suffering of others, according to a research report published in the March 2009 issue of Psychological Science.”
Considering the huge amount of violent TV/movies that people are exposed to during the course of their childhood, it is no wonder that:
“Today’s college students are not as empathetic as college students of the 1980s and ’90s, a University of Michigan study shows.”
Note: “An average American child will see 200,000 violent acts and 16,000 murders on TV by age 18”
Note: an excellent overview is: Desensitization and Media Effects