Some violent movies can increase violent responses to provocation and acceptance of violence in real life

Two recently published studies show that prolonged exposure to gratuitous violence in the media can escalate subsequent hostile behaviors and, among some viewers, foster greater acceptance of violence as a means of conflict resolution.

The two studies were conducted by James B. Weaver III, head of the Department of Communication Studies at Virginia Tech, and Dolf Zillmann of the University of Alabama. In one study, the researchers wanted to see if frequent, consistent exposure to violence in films would bring out in people a greater support of violent solutions to social problems. The researchers set up an investigation in which 53 male and 40 female college students with various behavior types (empathetic, Type A, etc.) participated for extra credit in a class. They first took tests to determine their primary personality traits. Then they were told they would view five films, one each evening, to evaluate the films’ viability in the video market. They were exposed to nonviolent or gratuitously violent films over four consecutive days and rated those films. The films included innocuous movies, such as "Driving Miss Daisy" and "Little Man Tate," in which conflicts are resolved without bodily harm, and violent films, such as "Universal Soldier" and "Excessive Force," representing the new cinematic genre of superviolent movies that are laden with maimings and killings and often have a hero who uses such violence.

On the fifth day, approximately 24 hours after viewing the fourth film, the students were told the researchers had enough data on the video-rental study, but they could participate in a substitute project to earn their full credit. They took part in a project that they were not told was a part of the film study. An experimenter and helper administered tasks that the students were told would indicate whether they possessed important interaction skills or lacked them. The experimenter then gave them either good scores or poor grades with comments such as "Awful!" and "I sure wouldn’t hire you!" The students then were sent to the professor’s office, where they were asked to help the professor decide whether the new assistants should be given financial assistance or denied it.

Weaver and Zillmann found that no matter what type film the students saw, they reacted in a hostile manner toward the experimenter if they were provoked,. (recommending that they be denied financial assistance). Exposure to the gratuitously violent film also produced this effect without provocation by the experimenter. The study showed that prolonged exposure to gratuitously violent films is can escalate hostile behavior in both men and women and instigate such behavior in unprovoked research participants. They determined that the effect is not short lived, but remains for some time after the viewing of the films.

The researchers were surprised at the strong effect of media violence on the responses of non-provoked persons. They speculate that perhaps the fact that the fifth film was replaced with more demanding assignments annoyed the participants enough to reactivate the hostile concepts implanted by the movies. "If that is the case," Weaver says, "it could be showing that prolonged exposure to media violence can facilitate hostility indiscriminately. That is, it may be that the concepts of hostility planted by the media violence can be activated by any ill feelings and can foster mean-spiritedness toward the person’s social environment at large."

The researchers found other surprising responses. Women rated the experimenter as less courteous than did males, and people with empathetic, extraverted, or Type A behaviors also were more hostile. The researchers speculate that, since the experimenters were all female, the women participants were hostile to their authority and "felt comparatively uninhibited in their hostile behavior toward female targets." Too, the male participants may have been exhibiting chivalry in rating the experimenters as more courteous, Weaver says. As for extraverts, they may be more apprehensive of being evaluated and react negatively to the authoritative – and especially to the abusive – evaluations. Type A people may have been impatient and annoyed at changing from viewing a film to taking tests, the researchers said.

In a second study, Weaver and Zillmann took a more global approach to see how violence in the media affected participants’ reactions to things that did not involve them personally. They first gave them tests to determine the level of psychoticism in their personality. (Psychoticism as measured on the revised Eysenck scale used by the researchers is a trait characterized by hostile disposition, lack of empathy, and contempt for risks and danger – a general disregard for society’s preferences. It is not the mass-murderer/ultra dangerous person associated with the general term psychopath.) The researchers exposed participants (also students who would get class credit for completing the experiment) to four types of films – nonviolent, old-style violence (e.g., "Glory"), gratuitous violence (e.g., "Death Warrant"), and horror (e.g., "Howling VI"), again ostensibly so the participants could rate them for marketability. A day after the fourth film, the researchers told the participants they were taking part in a different study on conflict resolution. They were given conflict scenarios, ranging from two kindergarten children fighting to domestic violence, and asked to evaluate various violent and nonviolent resolutions and to indicate how they would respond to the situation. Two-hundred ten men and women completed the study.

The researchers found that men who perceived themselves as socially deviant and egocentric (Eysenck’s version of psychotic) were more likely to accept violence as a means of resolving societal conflicts after watching four movies with gratuitous violence. Watching old-style violence or horror movies did not have that effect. The psychotic men also more strongly endorsed the death penalty after watching such movies. The result is socially significant, Weaver says, because roughly half of the college men in the study fell into the upper half range of this socially indifferent personality.

Other results showed that women prefer to negotiate settlements to problems and men deem violent options more effective, including recklessly violent options. Women, whether high or low in psychoticism, failed to prefer violent resolutions even after viewing the gratuitous violence. Males at the lower end of the psychoticism scale also preferred nonviolence. The fact that men with high-psychotic profiles elected violent solutions may simply reflect a general preference for violent options by men in this group, Weaver says. They may, in fact, seek out such violent movies.

The two tests, Weaver says, were not looking for the mass murderers of the world, but were trying to determine the effects of films with gratuitous violence on the general population. "We’re talking here about some people in everyday life who may not find it okay to beat up someone, but do find it all right to exchange harsh words and insult other people. These films with gratuitous violence make people less civil, more willing to say things in a meeting or in a classroom that were inappropriate a few years ago. It seems tied to the role models seen and the lessons learned from different types of films."

The studies show a callousness of world view, Weaver says. Person A says something bad to Person B and, because Person B has viewed gratuitous violence, he reacts more harshly than he would have reacted otherwise. "I think this tendency will increase," Weaver says, "because these films are teaching people it’s okay to break the rules of civility."

The two studies were published in the Journal of Applied Social Psychology and the journal Personality and Individual Differences, respectively. Overall, Weaver says, both studies indicate a need to take personality traits into consideration when studying the effects of violent films on the subsequent behavior of individuals.

Sally Harris
College of Arts and Sciences

Weaver studies the social and psychological effects of mass communication, including the effects of humor. To learn more about his reasearch, visit: http://lshta.vt.edu/


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