Does violence on the screen spill over into streets?

Alby Elias

There are many publications and controversial findings about the association between exposure to media violence and violent behavior in real life. As far as violence is concerned media has been under microscope for many years. Since media is viewed as the fourth pillar of a democratic society any allegation against it has to be carefully analyzed. For the purpose of this essay the term media applies to visual media

Very often television programs and movies are replete with scenes of violence.  We see agitated crowd assaulting others and destroying public property in the news program; descriptions of murders and other crimes in special television programs; and heroes punching villains and using obscene words in movies.  Have we ever thought of the impact of depiction of such violence on the behavior of people in the real world?
There are many publications and controversial findings about the association between exposure to media violence and violent behavior in real life. Known that violence is influenced by multitude of factors and there are inherent difficulties and ethical issues in conducting and interpreting studies in the area of social science it is an extremely hard job to delineate the role of media in precipitating or perpetuating social violence.  Nonetheless, these studies have followed a method, the essence of science. As far as violence is concerned media has been under microscope for many years. Since media is viewed as the fourth pillar of a democratic society any allegation against it has to be carefully analyzed. For the purpose of this essay the term media applies to visual media.

The theoretical background.
Social learning theory: Arguably the strongest explanation of how people imitate others’ behavior is offered by Albert Bandura’s social learning theory. It says that human behavior develops within a particular social context. People observe and then incorporate what they have observed into their real life.
Skinner’s operant learning model: According to this theory any behavior that is followed by reward or pleasure will be strengthened and that followed by punishment will be attenuated. Whereas systematic punishment may eliminate a behavior it cannot be used to develop a new behavior. On the other hand the reward can act as positive reinforcement, motivation to engage in same behavior.
Emotional Desensitization: This theory explains how emotional reactions abate over a period of time with repeated visual exposure.  For example, the initial emotional reactions associated with watching murders, blood, flesh and weapons slowly and gradually subside with repeated watching over several months. Finally the observers do not experience any emotions on watching such scenes. With the development of emotional desensitization displaying violence, murders and sexual crimes in the media can invite disastrous consequences. 
Apart from the above models there are psychodynamic theories that explain human behavior of imitation. For e.g. while watching a movie an observer may identify himself with the hero and not only his actions, but also other attributes like style of speech will be internalized. This psychological mechanism is called introjection. Later when the circumstances are conducive the internalized figures and acts will be retrieved and then imitated. This process will be facilitated in a society where there is a culture of ‘star’ and leader worship. Such worship develops when people perceive, often unconsciously, a weakness in their own personalities and try to fill in that deficit with the images and attributes of leaders and heroes.

The evidences
Are there evidences to say that media violence is imitated? The answer is yes. These evidences have been derived from two types of studies: experimental studies and observational studies. The latter consists of cross sectional studies and longitudinal studies. The experimental studies were well designed in the sense that participants were randomly assigned to two groups: one who watched violent scenes and the other who did not. (Randomization is a method to equalize the participants with respect to all variables other than the variable to be studied). Investigators who did not know who belonged to which group measured physical aggression like hitting while the participants played a game.  In one study it was found that children who watched violent scenes showed more violence than those who did not watch such scenes1. Violence became intensified when the cue associated with violence in the original scene was shown in the game.  A meta-analysis (systematic review of all relevant studies on the area and pooled analyses of the data from individual studies) of cross sectional studies have shown that children who watch more media violence behave more aggressively on daily basis with correlation values ranged from 0.15 to 0.32.  The evidence is even stronger with longitudinal studies. Some investigators followed 557 children over 15 years and found that the amount of viewing violent television programs predicted future violence when they became adults. Their aggression prior to watching TV or characteristics of parents were considered but they could not explain future violence.  Another study has clearly showed a jump in violent crimes after several high-profile murder cases in the early and mid 1960s in America3. 
In consistent with the theory of both operant and observational learning it was seen that children exhibited violence when they viewed scenes where violence was rewarded and did not imitate violence when it was punished in the original scene4.  Although the violence shown by villains is punished hero’s violence is always rewarded. In addition, for both reward and punishment to be effective they have to follow immediately after the behavior and be consistent in the sense that every time the behavior occurs reward or punishment must follow. Villain’s behavior is punished usually towards the end of a movie. Consequently there will be a differential learning so that the rewarding effects of  violence will remain in the minds of observers whereas the effect of punishment will go under the radar. Therefore we cannot say that punishment of villains give a message against violence. Similarly supporting the theory of identification and imitation it was observed that when children imagined themselves as the heroes of a violent film the violence inducing effects of watching the film has become multiplied5,6.  It is not only the violent act, but also the methods of violence are imitated. At the same time there is no evidence that intelligence, gender or socio-economic status of the audience influence future violence7.  Finally when parents discussed the inappropriateness of television violence with their children and restricted access to violent television shows there was lower tendency towards violence8.

Examination of evidences: criticism against studies on media violence.
The above findings are not without methodological constraints. The opponents of such studies argue that variables like violence could not be measured properly because such variables are subjected to the bias of investigators and they are less objective. Secondly there are other factors that can cause or contribute to violence and such factors are not taken into account. Yet another criticism is that statistical difference between the groups who watch violence and those who do not is small and probably insignificant.  It is also true that visual media appeared only in the twentieth century, but violence existed throughout the recorded history of mankind.  All those who watch violent films or programs on television do not show violence. Lastly some studies in this field have not shown any relationship between media violence and violence in real life. Studies with negative results may not be published resulting in publication bias 9.
While the aforesaid criticism is valid it does not mean that the research findings on media violence can be totally ignored because of several reasons. Violence was rated with certain criteria, not without a protocol. Other factors that can influence violence were taken into account 5 although not in all studies. Regarding small statistical difference it may assume huge impact when it is translated into millions of people who watch media violence. Even though there is no evidence for direct link between media violence and violence in the society there are evidences to say that media violence can be imitated and this can give rise to crimes committed by individual members of the society.

Vulnerability-Precipitant model.
Violence is caused by many factors operating together in an individual.  Such factors include genetic risk for violence (these genes code for certain neurotransmitters in the brain that are associated with violence and underactive sympathetic nervous system associated with callous psychopath personality), early upbringing in an environment where children witness violence, father who is addicted to alcohol, early traumas like neglect, physical and sexual abuse, mental illnesses including Anti Social personality Disorder and consumption of alcohol and intoxicating drugs.  When these factors are present they increase the risk of violence. When people with heightened risk of violence view media violence it can set on fire. In other words visual media violence can precipitate violence in people who are already at high risk of engaging in violent behavior. In essence the impact of media violence is additive. In science it is known as a moderator variable.

Do we actually need violent scenes?
So far there is no evidence that media violence alone causes violent behavior in the society or pauses public threat9. However, from theories as well as a set of findings there is a probability that along with other risk factors media violence adds to the likelihood of individual incidences of violence. Future studies with well-designed methodology may either prove or disprove such a connection. Until that happens media professionals need to get a reflection of their own practice. Why do we need violence displayed in visual media? Expression of violence is not for the sake of art or media ethics, but for the internal gratification of the storywriter or the producer of violent programs. Violence is a primitive instinct in all human beings. Some refine it to a great extent and demonstrate socially adaptive behavior; others cannot inhibit this emotion. When people cannot modulate violent instinct they manifest it either through art using a defense mechanism called sublimation or sometimes express violence in real life. But even when we admit that sublimation is a mature defense we cannot fail to see the possible adverse consequences of media violence. Moreover, in movies where heroes punch villains there is hardly any art. Movies are filled with such scenes when the artists suffer from poverty of imagination and actors are incapable of performing good acting. In television programs when violent scenes are displayed journalists think that they are fulfilling their duty of informing the public or respecting the right of people to know. But they may be actually inflicting harm. Substantial data has accrued in media violence research in the past few decades and time is over for journalists and movie artists to reconsider their practice.
If our children grow in a world filled with violence then it is highly likely that they will learn and imitate such violence in the future. We cannot eliminate violence from real world, but we can abolish showing violence in the visual media. It may lead to a creative change and future generation may show less violence. What our children give to us tomorrow will be the same thing that we show to them today. If we do not put a stop to displaying violence in the visual media we may be riding for a fall. 

The writer is a psychologist in Melbourne.
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