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Snake oil salesmen selling torture

Excellent critique of the CIA torture program from a scientific point of view.

Mind Hacks

The US Government has just released its report on the CIA’s Detention and Interrogation Program, aptly branded the “torture report”, which is available online as a pdf.

It makes for appalling reading but sheds light on the role of two psychologists in the creation and running of what turned out to be genuinely counter-productive ‘enhanced interrogations’ that were used in preference to already productive non-abusive interrogations.

In the report the psychologists are given the codenames Grayson SWIGERT and Hammond DUNBAR but these refer to James Mitchell and Bruce Jessen who have been widely identified byothersources in the preceding years.

Mitchell and Jessen were both contractors, who, according to the new report, arrived at detention centres to direct CIA interrogations, despite having no interrogation experience, and in face of sometimes severe reservations of regular CIA staff.

Later, Mitchell and Jessen formed a company, Mitchell Jessen and Associates –…

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Other Effects of Aggression

Other Effects of Aggression

Here is an interesting webpage asking the question “Do violent video games contribute to youth violence?”

This webpage then lists numerous arguments making the case for and against. What’s quite interesting is that the Pro side argues that violent video games increase aggression, increase desensitization and decrease empathy. While the Con side argues that violent video games do not increase violent crime.

Unfortunately the Pro side ignores the fact that violent crime rates have gone down substantially. This is, I think, a mistake. The whole issue of violent crime rates going down, while at the same time sales of violent video games have gone up, should be dealt with. It could very well be that violent video games (and violent TV/movies) do indeed contribute to violent crime, but that this effect is masked by the enormous increase in the incarceration rate. Basically, the question should be “if we had the same rate of incarceration as we did in the early 1960s, would the violent crime rate be as low as it was during the early 1960s?”. Or in other words “could we release 80% of the prison population without an increase in violent crime?” Personally, I think not.

Meanwhile the Con side focuses on the issue of violent crime, pretty much ignoring the issue of increased aggression and decreased empathy. Their attitude seems to be that as long as violent video games don’t increase violent crimes that any other effects don’t matter.

Personally, I do believe that violent media was the main cause of the doubling of the homicide rate from the early 1960s to the late 1970s and which stayed very high until it finally started to come down starting in the early 1990s. But it is impossible to prove this one way or another.

But let’s say, for the sake of argument, that violent media (for whatever reason) has not contributed to increased violent crime. Nevertheless increased aggression, increased desensitization and decreased empathy do lead to other bad outcomes. Note the term ‘aggression’ is used by researchers to mean “willingness to harm others”. So what are the effects on society when more and more children are being taught (by violent TV/movies and video games) to be more willing to harm others?

Could all this violent media be contributing to:

  • more physical bullying
  • more non-physical bullying, such as name-calling and spreading ugly rumors
  • more cheating, fraud and lying inside and outside of school
  • more glorification of guns
  • more glorification of violence
  • more glorification of torture
  • less civility
  • less ethical behavior
  • less kindness
  • less interest in the common good
  • a coarsening of the culture
  • a meaner society

We do live in a society that has gotten meaner and uglier. Personally, I believe that violent TV, violent movies and violent video games are a big reason why.

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Do violent video games reduce violent crime?


The evidence has been conclusive that playing violent video games increases the player’s level of aggression. The term aggression is used by scientists specifically to mean “willingness to harm others”.

So if a violent video game player’s “willingness to harm others” increases, does that mean they’ll go out and commit a violent crime? No it doesn’t. It just means that whatever level of aggression a person already has, will be increased by playing violent video games. The more they play, the more their level of aggression is increased. So, someone who starts out very non-aggressive will (after playing violent video games) become less non-aggressive. And someone who starts out very aggressive will (after playing violent video games) become even more aggressive. So if someone is already so aggressive that they are teetering on the edge of committing a violent crime, it would make sense that hours of playing violent video games would push them over that edge, to the point of committing a violent crime. The result would be that most people who play lots of violent video games would not have their aggression level increased to the point of committing a violent crime, but that a minority of players would indeed have their level of aggressiveness increased to the point of committing a violent crime.

But is this what is actually happening? Has the enormous dedications of millions of players to violent video games actually lead to an increase in violent crime?

Apparently not.

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How Violent TV Increases Aggression


ThinkQuest has an excellent overview of how violent TV increases aggression. Including:

47% of violent television programs show the victim going unharmed, especially in cartoons.
The person in the cartoon or television show gets bowled over by another character and they get back up without being harmed. Children begin to believe that violence doesn’t really hurt others.

73% of individuals who commit crimes in cartoons and children’s shows go unpunished in violent scenes
Television shows that allow the character who commits the crime to receive no punishment, teaches children that it is alright to commit a crime because nothing will be done. Criminals and violent acts do not get punished.

Violence is a good way to solve problems
Television is a powerful teacher and if children are always viewing their favorite characters using violence or aggression to get what they want, children will do the same.

Television creates heroes out of the people who commit the crimes
Kids feel that if they copy the criminal they will be a hero, too. The hero that commits the crime is glamorized. There is nothing heroic about violence and it is wrong to show kids that it is. Children begin to think of criminals as powerful role models.

Television reduces the value of life
If Wiley Coyote gets killed, the other cartoon characters don’t care, and they may even laugh. TV makes violence and even death seem funny and unreal.

In addition, I would add: Desensitization Through Violent TV


Children Imitate What They See

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Desensitization Through Violent TV

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




Examples of Desensitization

Desensitization means to make someone less sensitive through repeated exposure. Desensitization is an important survival mechanism, if you take a job as a roofer, then it is to your advantage to become less frightened by heights over time. Same thing with a doctor, a doctor who can’t stand gore or body parts won’t be that effective, but through repeated exposure, medical students become less and less bothered by cadavers. Doctors working in extreme circumstances, with few tools, have to become inured to the suffering around them due to the lack of pain-killers, to remain effective doctors.

Examples would be:


When you confront your cadaver during the first week of school, you will begin to learn emotional aloofness. Prospective doctors become desensitized to death’s symbols -bones, blood, corpses, and stench- symbols that disturb most people. Some students become desensitized earlier during premed courses that required them to dissect or even kill living things. In any event, this phase of medical school can still be disturbing. A psychiatrist who interviewed students found that many of them had nightmares about their anatomy experiences.

No matter how great the initial shock, however, it apparently wears off for most students. Before long you become so desensitized that you can eat lunch around the corpse.

Surviving Medical School by Robert H. Coombs (page 137-138)

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