My Take on Violence in Media

Fight!
Fight! (Photo credit: Aislinn Ritchie)

By Juan-Carlos Duran  August 22, 2013

It seems to me that even those who disagree with a correlation between violent media and an increase in aggression can agree society is becoming desensitized. As a whole, we’re no longer surprised by violence and gore in films for example. Yes, we may find a particular scene incredibly gross, gory or even be shocked by it; but seldom do we come out of the theatre incredulous or surprised that the scene was there in the first place. On the contrary, we may mention it in post-viewing passing conversation and then continue on our way without further thought. Violent scenes are becoming a staple in certain genres of films and video games and in the process have created expectations that they be included.

As I write this I am reminded of Marshall McCluhan’s question, “Does a fish know it’s wet?” which Dr. Karen Dill-Shackleford wrote about in her How Fantasy Becomes Reality book. It struck me again because researchers Huesmann, Dubow and Yang mention in their article the poignant fact that today’s policy makers, debaters and researchers have primarily been raised in an environment where violence in media is the norm. In essence, many of them just may be those fish that are wet. How, then, will this affect the future debate about violence in media?

Some of the most substantial support studies for a correlation between violence in media and an increase in aggression that Huesmann, Dubow and Yang  point out are the overwhelming amount of metadata analyses and longitudinal studies showing there is a correlation.  In fact, even if the correlation is small—which is the reality according to those who don’t believe a correlation exists—it is nonetheless, in the words of the researchers, “socially significant.”  The Columbia County Longitudinal Study was another painstakingly meticulous scientific study and took over forty years to complete. It found that watching violence on television at a young age caused aggressive behavior later in life. The focal point of this and many other studies that have found a causal relationship between what one sees and how one behaves is really in the level of aggression. It isn’t that a person who watches violent media will become devilishly violent suddenly or eventually; it’s really more a matter of aggression becoming  easier to trigger or manifest.

Just as important, however,  are the psychological processes driving denial. Cognitive consistency is a powerful force. The

2010.08.02 - Flipped Premiere
2010.08.02 – Rob Reiner at the Flipped premiere (Photo credit: mark.taber)

unwanted dissonance created as a result of having to change a deeply held belief does not motivate a person to change his opinion.  Similarly, reactance , which describes the state of defending the perception of lack of control is also a barrier to accepting a correlation. Specifically, artists and other creatives seem to enter a state of reactance when any criticism of their work is issued. Criticism is viewed by many creatives as a threat over their control. And since the majority of media that is produced involves creative minds, we can perhaps expect reactance to be a significant factor in contributing to overall denial of a correlation between media and increased aggression in that group. Further, the need for cognitive consistency combined with reactance can lead to adamant opinions. Huesmann, Dubow and Yang illustrate this point by informing us how director Rob Reiner publicly criticized one of them for equating producers of violent entertainment to the tobacco industry. While Huesmann, Dubow and Yang’s argument may be an exaggerated analogy it can also be justifiable. And by understanding cognitive dissonance and reactance we should also be able to understand the underlying psychological causes that potentially drive reactions such as Reiner’s in the creative circles.

English: Jim Carrey at the Cannes film festival
Jim Carrey at the Cannes film festival (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Recently Jim Carrey refused to continue doing publicity for the 2013 Kick Ass 2 movie, which he starred in, declaring, “I did ‘Kickass’ a month [before] Sandy Hook and now in all good conscience I cannot support that level of violence.” This prompted 16 year old co-star Chloe Grace Moretz to criticize Carrey by saying, “It’s a movie. If you are going to believe and be affected by an action film, you shouldn’t go to see ‘Pocahontas’ because you are going to think you are a Disney princess.” Unfortunately, Moretz’ belief is a prevalent but misguided point of view many of us have.  Violence in media does not create immediate or foreseeable reactions. It potentially creates changes over time.  And while not everyone may be affected, the fact is some people are and we can’t continue to blanketly deny the effects just because we don’t see them manifest right away.

Sadly, it seems that the denial of a correlation between media and aggression will continue. And attempting to change the of those of us who have grown up surrounded by violent media in the form of movies, television shows and video games may be tougher than we think.

References for my post

Demming, M. (2013, August 9). Chloe grace moretz blasts jim carre’ys stand against ‘kick-ass 2’.Retrieved from http://movies.yahoo.com/blogs/movie-talk/chloe-grace-moretz-blasts-jim-carrey-stand-against-170623974.html

Dill, K. E. (2009). How fantasy becomes reality, seeing through media influence. New York: Oxford University Press

Huesmann, L. R., Dubow, E. F., & Yang, G. (2013). Why it is hard to believe that media violence causes aggression . The OxfordHandbook of Media Psychology, doi: 10.1093/oxfordhb/9780195398809.001.0001

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