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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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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