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Why Does Viewing Violence Lead to Aggression?

15 February, 2016 - 10:55

There is strong evidence that viewing aggression on TV, playing violent video games, and exposure to violence in general tends to increase the likelihood of aggression. But why might viewing violence increase aggression?

Perhaps the strongest possibility is also the simplest—that viewing violence increases the cognitive accessibility of violence. When we see violence, violence is then activated in memory and becomes ready to guide our subsequent thinking and behavior in more aggressive ways. One way of understanding this process is shown in Figure 9.10. According to this model, the activation from the viewed violence spreads automatically in memory from the perceived violent acts to other aggressive ideas and in the end increases the likelihood of engaging in violence (Anderson, Benjamin, & Bartholow, 1998).

Figure 9.10 Priming Aggression 
Adapted from Anderson et al. (1998). 

Worldwide, about 1,000 people are killed every day as a result of gun violence. Of these, about 560 are the result of criminal homicides, 250 are direct war deaths, 140 are suicides, and 50 are accidents (International Action Network on Small Arms, 2006). Although school and workplace shootings have been of particular concern in recent years, even people who keep guns in their home for protection are likely to be killed by that gun—particularly at the hands of a family member—and are also likely to kill themselves with it (Cummings, Koepsell, Grossman, Savarino, & Thompson, 1997; Wintemute, Parham, Beaumont, Wright, & Drake, 1999).

Although it is true that it is people and not the guns themselves that do the killing, principles of social psychology make it clear why possessing guns is so dangerous. Guns provide cues about violence, which makes it more likely that people will respond to provocation with aggression. In any particular situation of conflict or confrontation, we have several choices. We might try to escape the situation, we might confront the person in a nonviolent way, or we might choose to use violence. The presence of guns reminds us that we may respond with violence. When guns are around, violence is highly cognitively accessible, and this accessibility increases the likelihood of responding to provocation with violence.

Research has shown that the presence of guns provides a highly salient cue, which reminds us that aggression is a possible response to threat. Anderson, Benjamin, and Bartholow (1998) found that just having participants think about guns primed thoughts about aggression. But the link does not end there. In addition to priming aggressive thoughts and feelings, viewing handguns also increases violent behavior, particularly when we are provoked (Carlson, Marcus-Newhall, & Miller, 1990).

In one famous study (Berkowitz & Lepage, 1967), male university students were given either one or seven painful electrical shocks, supposedly from another student, and then were given an opportunity to shock this person in return. In some cases, a 12-gauge shotgun and a .38-caliber revolver were lying on the table near the shock key, whereas in other conditions, two badminton racquets were near the key. The researchers found, first, that the students who had been shocked more times returned significantly more shocks to the partner than did those who had been shocked only once. But what about the presence of the guns? The researchers found that the guns did not significantly increase aggression for the participants who had received only one shock, but it did increase aggression for those who had received seven shocks. The presence of the guns seems to have elicited more aggressive responses from those who had been most provoked by the shocks. Given what you know about the importance of situational effects on priming, these results may not surprise you.

Another way that viewing violence increases aggression is through modeling. Children (and even adults) may simply imitate the violence they observe. Indeed, there is substantial evidence that people do copy the aggression that they read about or see in the media. For instance, when Belgian teenager Alisson Cambier spurned the romantic advances of her 24-year-old neighbour Thierry Jaradin, he excused himself only to return to the room wearing a ghostface costume and carrying two knives, which he used to stab her 30 times. He later admitted that the murder was premeditated and inspired by the horror film Scream. Research also has found strong evidence for copycat suicides. The rate of suicide in the general population increases significantly in the months after famous people, for instance Marilyn Monroe or Kurt Cobain, commit suicide (Phillips & Carstensen, 1986). In short, viewing violence teaches us how and when we should be aggressive.

Another outcome of viewing large amounts of violent material is desensitization, the tendency to become used to, and thus less influenced by, a stimulus. When we first see violence, we are likely to be shocked, aroused, and even repulsed by it. However, as we see more and more violence over time, we become habituated to it, such that subsequent exposures produce fewer and fewer negative emotional responses. In the end, we may begin to see violence as a normal part of everyday life and become accepting of it.

In sum, continually viewing violence substantially changes how we think about and how our brains respond to the events that occur to us (Bartholow, Bushman, & Sestir, 2006). Frequent exposure to violence primes aggression and makes aggressive behavior more likely (Molitor & Hirsch, 1994). And viewing aggression frequently makes that aggression seem more normal and less negative. If we create for ourselves a world that contains a lot of violence, we become more distrustful and more likely to behave aggressively in response to conflict (Nabi & Sullivan, 2001).

Key Takeaways

  • Aggression can be explained in part by the general principles of learning, including reinforcement, punishment, and modeling.
  • Reinforcement is more effective than punishment in reducing aggression.
  • Viewing violence in TV shows, movies, and video games tends to create aggression in the viewer.
  • Exposure to violence increases aggression through reinforcement, through modeling, by priming cognitions related to aggression, and through desensitization.

Exercises and Critical Thinking

  1. Describe a time when you were reinforced or punished for your aggressive behavior or when someone you knew was. Was the attempt to reduce aggression successful?
  2. Watch some children’s television programming for one hour and make a note of the number and types of incidences of aggression depicted.
  3. Do you or people you know watch a lot of TV violence or play violent video games? How do you think this exposure is influencing you or them? Do you think you are less susceptible to violent media than other people?


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