Academic Studies Of Violence Cause Violence

This makes us look smart.

There’s some wobbly reporting going on today, with yet another study claiming to demonstrate a link between a young person’s viewing violence, and being more tolerant of violence. Which is discussed as being about videogames. Which is a peculiar way of viewing a study that shows images from films to 22 teenagers, and demonstrates that as the clips progress their brain reacts less intensely, and not surprising since the study’s authors also make the same wild leap. However, it’s still an entry into the argument about whether violent images beget violence.

The study – “Fronto-parietal regulation of media violence exposure in adolescents: a multi-method study” – published in the Social Cognitive & Affective Neuroscience journal (one with a relatively low impact factor), has almost nothing to do with videogames. The teenagers were not monitored either playing nor viewing others playing videogames. Despite this, the BBC includes a picture of a PS2 controller, apropos of absolutely nothing in the story. But of course it’s easy to make the link.

Don’t misunderstand – this isn’t my mad tirade because someone dares question precious gaming. If there is a demonstrable link between playing violent videogames and increased levels of violence in players, then I think it would be extremely important to expose and discuss. Because it would be directly affecting us, and in turn, the way we raise our children. But we need to base this in evidence, and not wild speculation. Which seems to be at the core of how this study is being reported by its author.

This particular study includes some remarkable claims. In this study teenagers were shown a series of clips from violent “videos”, and asked to rate their response to them, at the same time as having their brain’s response measured. This demonstrated that as the clips progressed, they reacted less. Dr Jordan Grafman says,

“The implications of this include the idea that continued exposure to violent videos will make an adolescent less sensitive to violence, more accepting of violence, and more likely to commit aggressive acts since the emotional component associated with aggression is reduced and normally acts as a brake on aggressive behaviour.”

It’s this final element, the “more likely to commit aggressive acts”, that the study makes absolutely no attempt to investigate, rather stating it with links to other papers, and then stating it as a conclusion.

There’s an interesting confusion of studies regarding violence in media and resulting violence in real life. The main proponent for this is a book by Craig A. Anderson, Douglas A. Gentile, and Katherine E. Buckley, called Violent Video Game Effects on Children and Adolescents (pdf). It purports to demonstrate a link between increased aggression and playing violent games. But of course there have been other studies that contradict this entirely, demonstrating only that violent adolescents are more drawn toward playing violent games.

The abstract for the new paper reads:

“Adolescents spend a significant part of their leisure time watching TV programs and movies that portray violence. It is unknown, however, how the extent of violent media use and the severity of aggression displayed affect adolescents’ brain function. We investigated skin conductance responses, brain activation and functional brain connectivity to media violence in healthy adolescents. In an event-related functional magnetic resonance imaging experiment, subjects repeatedly viewed normed videos that displayed different degrees of aggressive behavior. We found a downward linear adaptation in skin conductance responses with increasing aggression and desensitization towards more aggressive videos. Our results further revealed adaptation in a fronto-parietal network including the left lateral orbitofrontal cortex (lOFC), right precuneus and bilateral inferior parietal lobules, again showing downward linear adaptations and desensitization towards more aggressive videos. Granger causality mapping analyses revealed attenuation in the left lOFC, indicating that activation during viewing aggressive media is driven by input from parietal regions that decreased over time, for more aggressive videos. We conclude that aggressive media activates an emotion–attention network that has the capability to blunt emotional responses through reduced attention with repeated viewing of aggressive media contents, which may restrict the linking of the consequences of aggression with an emotional response, and therefore potentially promotes aggressive attitudes and behavior.”

Which seems like a good start. But within the first paragraph this absolutely astonishing statement is made:

“Extensive research and media coverage have linked school shootings (Anderson et al., 2007, p. 3), real-life replications of video-game contents (Crowley, 2008) and general aggression to the exposure to extremely violent media (Anderson and Bushman, 2001, 2002).”

There has never been a single case of a school shooting being linked to violent videogames. It’s just phenomenal to begin a paper with such an outrageous claim. Citing “media coverage” – the only place where such wayward ideas comes from – belies a desperation that is woefully unscientific. To call something that does not exist “extensive”, and then making no direct citations that demonstrate anything of the sort, shows a bias on their going into the research.

A mystifying graph.

Their results appear to demonstrate that there was a lessening of the brain’s response to violence during the trial, showing four second clips of 60 muted videos of real-world violence. The 22 teenagers both physically and mentally reacted less as the clips progressed. It does appear to demonstrate that exposure to media violence causes a teenager to be – at least temporarily – desensitised in their reaction toward viewing violence.

However, there’s some extreme flaws here. First is the tiny sample size. 22 isn’t enough to be drawing such firm conclusions. Secondly, the extremely short time spent on the study seems very problematic. The teenagers were only tested for aggression after the test, one day later, and two weeks later. No long-term study has been used.

The BBC sought the views of Professor David Buckingham, the director of the Centre for the Study of Children, Youth and Media. He pointed out that violence is an immensely complex subject, not nearly so easily explained away. And indeed that violence is a “social problem”. There is no lack of evidence that violent behaviour begets violent behaviour. This is seen in people’s long-term behaviour, rather than spuriously speculated without evidence. Buckingham told the BBC,

“The suggestion is that, over a period of time, people can develop a kind of tolerance to these images – but another word for that is just boredom. This debate has been going on since before we were all born. In the 19th Century people were panicking about the effect of ‘Penny Dreadfuls’. If we are truly interested in violence and aggression, rather than blaming the media for everything wrong in the world, we need to look at what motivates it in real life.”

But it’s hard to get the press to write stories plugging that paper.


  1. spod says:

    It is a huge leap to assume that being desensitized to violence in media equates to being desensitized to violence in real life. It implies that either consciously or subconsciously one can’t tell the difference between the two. I still find any form of real violence abhorrent, though I found Manhunt to be mildly cathartic. Go figure.

    • Wulf says:

      To be honest, I think violence in videogames actually assuages violence in everyday life, whether it’s just base acts of bastardry or murder. Speaking of which, there was a lady on the news this morning who just felt like being cruel enough to toss a cat (not her own cat, just a random cat) into a bin. I bet she wasn’t a gamer. The thing is, if you play games, you have a very good venting point for your stress.

      If I get stressed, I don’t hit the streets with a semi-automatic, I play Prototype and slaughter virtual people with a spiked Mr. Tickle arm, this amuses me and makes me feel better. If I didn’t do this I’d likely eventually snap and probably end up doing harm to someone. The thing is, what a lot of these studies completely ignore is the therapeutic value of videogames for escapism. Now, if I can enter into a game as some kind of bizarre doombeast, and slaughter people, I’ll feel better about how shitty people have treated me today, and just how dickish the human race is on average. It’s a coping mechanism.

      I’m able to be much more nice to people on the whole because I know that I can always dive into a game at the end of the day and kill things to deal with my anger that way. It’s perfectly healthy from a psychiatric viewpoint to have a therapeutic outlet for these feelings providing that they don’t make anyone else suffer in the process. And videogames are completely underestimated and misunderstood in this regard. To be honest, I have many forms of outlet and escapism, and I’ll likely use the Charr in Guild Wars 2 for just that when it comes out. Long after I’ve completed the content, I’ll just go in with my high-level gun toting Charr and blast holes in things.

      In Oblivion I love the werewolf mod, because I can just go and rip things up when I feel like it. This is a much more healthy thing to do than: yelling at people, punching walls, yelling at walls (?), punching people, or tossing cats into bins.

    • Dolphan says:

      One of the interesting results that’s come out of the (still fledgling) Social Psychology field is people repeatedly looking for evidence of this (that ‘letting out’ stress/aggression by expressing it in various non-directly-aggressive ways can make people less aggressive/stressed in general) and completely failing to find it. The risks of ‘bottling it up’ seem to be a folk-psychological myth.

    • Wulf says:

      Yes, but you’re actually speaking more of psychiatry as a whole being a fringe pseudo-science staffed by quacks because we know so little about the brain. There’s little evidence that bottling up feelings is bad, but there’s little evidence that desensitising people to violence causes violence, there’s actually little evidence of anything in the psychiatric fields. This is actually a long-time known thing, due to the complex nature of the human brain. In fact, we’re having a harder time figuring out our own brains than we are the Universe. Physicists find less to argue about than neurologists and psychiatrists do.

      Personally, I can only speak from my own experiences, and I can say that having an outlet does help me. I’ve gone without games in the past, the results were none too pleasant, and I did have elevated levels of stress. Having games present to let out my feelings in a safe environment actually allowed me to de-stress in a way that didn’t harm anyone, and I’ve come to rely on games for this. And frankly, in the field of psychiatry, anecdotal evidence is as valid as any. And that’s probably the way it’s going to be for a few generations yet to come.

    • Peter says:

      People adapt – that’s a fact. If you kill someone, first it’ll be quite tough on you, but later on you learn to bear with it. If you watch horrific scenes, in time they won’t impress you at all. Surgeons get used to operating on people, it’s not like any of them have it easy at the start. Same with watching violence videos – sure, it might shock you the first time around, but with time, it’s not such a big deal. Watching violence or performing it in games, however, will never prepare you to do it in real life.

      PS: Damn you captcha. Failing me thrice in a row.

  2. Groove says:

    New evidence suggests sensationalist reporting causes violence.

  3. Eslup says:

    If you showed a group of teenagers mute footage of hamburgers and monitored their responses, wouldn’t they become increasingly desensitised to food as time went on?

    It makes me angry and slightly depressed that most if not all of these studies are, at the end of the day, incredibly disingenuous in their aims. Video games cause violence – tired scapegoat hypothesis, no evidence… the last two paragraphs of this article say all that need to be said really. Well done though for tackling these new ‘findings’ with an open and professional approach.

    • bob_d says:

      Yeah, really. What’s really telling is a quote from the BBC article: “The longer the boys watched videos, particularly the mild or moderate ones, the less they responded to the violence within them.” (my emphasis)
      So the researcher’s equation of “boredom with video” equalling “desensitization to violence” equalling “violent behavior” is blown completely out of the water. If it were true, we’d see the most violent behavior from those watching the least violent images. (“‘Mario’ champ goes on shooting rampage!”) Instead they’ve proven that the neuro-activity they witnessed wasn’t significant at all.

    • Clovis says:

      I’ve sometimes found that looking at a series of images on the internet of a similar type only leads to me getting more … er …. excited. You know, depending on the subject and … umm … well, nature of the images … anyway …

    • jsdn says:

      @Clovis That was actually my first thought. Yeah, if they did a study on porn, showing a series of naked women (let’s ignore sexual preferences for simplicity) to a man, then he’s going to have less and less of a response to the images. The question is whether or not that will make him more likely to rape a woman. And, well, there’s more evidence that the exact opposite effect happens. The amount of reported rapes in areas with high speed internet is considerably lower than areas without. Not to say that that proves that access to porn makes people less likely to rape, but it seems to be doing well to weed out “scientific studies” like these, or should I say desperate and asinine proof of hypothesis for baseless propaganda.

    • Wraggles says:

      This gives me an idea for a new study, get several young men to watch porn for roughly 3 hours every night, then after a week, hire a prostitute and see if they can’t “get it up”.

      I’m on board with the boredom thing, desensitisation specifically requires the same sensation repeatedly, with little variation. Soldiers who have become numb to regular warfare have been reported to lose it at seeing a child gunned or down, more so if they’re the ones required to do so.

      I think a better study would be one that actually explored these experiential gaps, the difference in experience required to maintain or remove desensitisation.

  4. Ian says:

    New research shows that a sample of one article proves John Walker cannot write an article that doesn’t include a graph.

  5. Farewell says:

    What has science done?

    link to

  6. Simon says:

    Oh look, it’s this again.

    I am now thoroughly desensitised to sensationalist reporting.

  7. The Innocent says:

    I agree with Mr. Walker entirely — these sorts of pseudo-studies simply aren’t helpful, and I really would like to know if there’s a link between aggression and video games. I’m also interested in gaming addiction and any other emotional impact games can have. Rather than zealously defend gaming (which also isn’t generally helpful; many gamers tend to be so emphatic in their defense that they come off as somewhat unbalanced), I appreciate honest scientific studies into this sort of thing. Sadly, this is not that.

  8. Aemony says:

    I can make a study of my own life. And the conclusion of my study would be the complete difference since I, as an amid gamer, NEVER resorts to violence. I’m somewhat what you can call a pacifist and even if I get hit sometime I often doesn’t resolve to violence mainly because it doesn’t solve anything. In comparsion my friends who DON’T play video games is the complete opposite, and can often “show” their “masculinity” by resorting to violence a bit. So in conclusion everyone should play video games, and those who are against it is friends of war and suffering!

    ~ But I might think about going Gordon Freeman on those that hits me… But it’s all in my mind… all in my mind… ~

  9. Nimloth says:

    I think that’s exactly the best possible point you could make when faced with this sort of “evidence”. They use the D-word (desensitized), like it’s this terrible thing. But in reality, with repetition, you can become desensitized to just about anything. We react less to things we have had repeated experience with, whether it be a joke (It was really funny the first 6 times), or 2Girls1Cup (The internet is full of gross), or Pornography (Oh look, boobs), or anything really. These studies are a complete waste of time.

    – Nim

  10. Fred Wester, CEO of Paradox says:

    A sample of Fred Wester, CEO of Paradox quotes proves that over time Fred Wester, CEO of Paradox quotes have become desensitised to the context in which they are raised.

  11. Steelfists says:

    Great article.

  12. Archonsod says:

    Sometimes I wish the BBC hired people who actually knew about science for science reporting, rather than media graduates who tend to simply regurgitate press releases. The quality of their reporting on science has plummeted markedly in the past decade, and it was never that great to begin with.

  13. Sunjumper says:

    I am not surprised to see this kind of reporting again, I am not even angry anymore, I have read this kind of shit for decades now and all that is left is being tired.

    What does surprise me is how they got that paper published.
    Even if it were in an Impact Factor 0.1 journal that does not make it any less bad science.
    The conclusions cannot be derived from their data, at all.
    This should have been rejected even before going into peer review.

    Bad science depresses me.

  14. myros says:

    From what I know of brain physiology and psychology this effect is true whatever the substance of the images/videos that are being shown.

    ie Show cat lovers pictures/videos of very cute cats and the brain will react less over time. As was quoted this just amounts to boredom or just the very important functions of the brain to evaluate immediate pleasure or threat responses. If it continued to push major responses (and the chemical reactions within the body) it could be very harmful. It is a very natural and beneficial self limiting factor within the brain.

  15. Beebop says:

    I don’t see a great deal wrong with their methodolgy or necessarily their conclusions as long as those conclusions are correctly linked to the short-medium term and are properly referenced (like the bit about desensitisation to images of violence leading to violent tendencies). It’s a short-term study of a relatively small sample, but hey, psychology’s only a pretend science anyway.

    I would take issue with that first sentence if those references don’t check out though, a peer reviewed journal shouldn’t have spurious statements. Someone should check them and write to the journal. But not me.

    • Pew says:

      They almost always do that, drawing conclusions from results using a methodology that doesn’t account for the vast majority of factors. Doom vs. Kayak Extreme? More words like “kill”, “shoot”, “gun” chosen afterwards when they played Doom? Conclusion: violent games lead to violent cognitions and therefore behavior (instantly!). Let’s forget that study in question didn’t have words like “Kayak” or “water” and the causal link is there!

      I had the misfortune of having to takeover as a 2nd supervisor for a student who did his thesis on violent games in the C. Anderson tradition. During his presentation, his gf told his family that yes, playing Shrek Family Party (PEGI 3+) scared her and shouldn’t be for kids. His family was shocked. I had to step in for 4 minutes explaining that basically the whole study didn’t account for personality or other factors that have been shown to be key predictors for violent behavior (family violence, socio-econmic status, race and its role of acceptance in society, as factors on aggressive personality).

      Some people are just too uneducated and worried, and they will accept these kinds of answers so Family Institutes will keep funding these studies for political gains. It’s awful. There are voices like Craig Anderson and Cheryl K. Olson (Grand Theft Childhood) who take a more objective and insightful approach though.

      In the end, while they still do these studies with wild claims, we’ll end up with some evidence that violent media does influence an indivudual or a society in ‘some ways’, but has nothing to do with turning them into violent people or killers. Games are here to stay, people are not murdering more people and hopefully we’ll see the positive sides of games on learning and physical skill overrule the negative sides.

  16. mandrill says:

    We are animals. Its that simple. If we feel threatened and we can’t escape, we are wired up to react violently towards that which threatens us. There is no escaping our biology.

    However, we live in a society and civilization which is unsympathetic to our biology. By that I mean that there is not a lot left to threaten us but the circuitry is still there to initiate such a reaction. This has resulted in a fundamental breakdown in our ability to adequately judge external situations to determine whether they are threatening or not.

    Oddly videogames may actually be causing us to be less violent than we would be otherwise. By training our biology to properly perceive threats and react accordingly within the games we may actually be making ourselves better at doing so in the real world.

    There is nothing left to threaten us in reality, so we seek to keep the animal amused with videogames, violent movies and the rest. Our biology needs us to feel threatened on occasion, in conditions of safety (that we can escape from) so we know intellectually how to deal with the rush of chemicals that our bodies produce in such situations and can react as the rational beings that we are.

    Some people are better at dealing with violence than others, there are those that meet it with violence, and there are those who cower in fear of it, both of these extremes are not ideal in our current society as they will end up with you the subject of the opprobrium of that society and injured or worse respectively.

    We should be the masters of our biology, not its slaves. Diffusing tense situations with as little violence as possible is the best option, but more often than not our biology gets the better of us.

    TL;DR: Violence is nothing to do with games or other media, its built in and we need to learn to master it.

  17. Inglourious Badger says:

    I recently conducted a similar experiment in which I made adolescent teenagers (is there any other kind?) watch a series of clips from lovely, fluffy, caring “videos” of babies laughing, and cows frolicking, and sportsmen high-fiving and asked the teenagers to rate their response to them, at the same time as having their brain’s response measured. As the clips progressed, they reacted less.

    Hmmm, I thought, it can only mean that if adolescents are exposed to lovely videos on a regular basis they will become less sensitive to loving, caring and sharing, and lose all love for and affinity with their family, friends and fellow humans.

    My conclusion is these exposed, insensitive individuals, lacking in basic human functions such as love and compassion, will surely grow up to be tomorrows murderers and school shooters, paedophiles and parliament ministers.

    The only lodgical conclusion to my survey was to murder all involved with my submachine gun as Call of Duty taught me.

  18. skalpadda says:

    Do we need to link the clip of Penn and Teller making a kid cry again?

  19. Jaxtrasi says:

    This style of conclusions which are tangential to the results at best is fairly typical of my experience of (even peer reviewed) social science. While it’s easy to demonise the media for publishing misleading headlines, something they do on a more or less daily basis, the scientists seem to do everything they can to help them along.

  20. Web Cole says:

    You know what, I bet if you did a study about peoples emotional repsonse to cute kittens and bunny rabbits you find that the “emotional component associated with” cuteness would reduce the more they were exposed to it.

    Big fucking woop.

  21. Garg says:

    Just because “Neuroscience” has the word science in the title doesn’t mean its a real science. Namby pamby liberal arts pinkos.

    • Unaco says:

      As someone who is doing a PhD in theoretical Neuroscience, I have to object to this. It is (or should be) very, very scientific. It is the Scientific Study of the nervous system, incorporating Biology, Chemistry, Physics, Computing Science, Mathematics, some Cybernetics (old school Cybernetics, not this new half-man/half-robot stuff), Systems theory, Network theory … and a lot of other disciplines. Unfortunately, some ‘practitioners’ tend to over-reach, or try to incorporate higher level behaviour, and higher level disciplines (such as some aspects of Psychology), when there still exists a massive explanatory gap between neural behaviour and subject behaviour, or a severe lack of characterisation for the neural behaviour itself (big ups to David Parker and his recent smack-down of over-reaching conclusions. That’s about as aggressive and critical as you can get in a scientific piece btw. Although it deals mostly with the lack of characterisation and understanding of the neural or network level, the unfounded ‘confidence’ and linking to overt behaviour or cognition etc. would also be open to the same criticisms).

      Also, due to this lack of understanding, I’m actually quite critical of drawing conclusions (especially for such high level aspects of behaviour) from imaging studies.

      Perhaps “Just because you have Neuroscience in the title of your journal, doesn’t make it respectable” would be better. I’d actually criticise the use of neuroscience to characterise Affective/Social/Cognitive behaviours more… we just don’t know enough to take neural behaviour and correlate that to higher level behaviour in the vast majority of behaviours. But don’t dismiss the Neuroscience.

    • Unaco says:

      Sorry, that should read as “don’t dismiss “the Neuroscience””… like, “don’t diss “the indie game movement”” or similar… rather than “don’t dismiss the Neuroscience performed in this particular instance”. By all means criticise the Neuroscience performed here… it does seem a little lax.

    • Wulf says:

      That’s what bugs me about a lot of it, Unaco, is that it should have Scientific credibility but a lot of the time it’s just sensationalism. I’m looking to people like you to actually make something respectable out of it, for the sake of the future, because I think that understanding our brains is important.

      I think that too many so-called Scientists are making a sensationalist joke out of it, though.

  22. Uhm says:

    Somebody threatened me with violence this morning, I merely shrugged and said “Oh, I’ve seen this before”.

  23. Tinus says:

    “The implications of this include the idea that continued exposure to studies linking violent videogames to actual violence will make a researcher less sensitive to studies linking violent videogames to actual violence, more accepting of studies linking violent videogames to actual violence, and more likely to write studies linking violent videogames to actual violence since the emotional component associated with studies linking violent videogames to actual violence is reduced and normally acts as a brake on the production of studies linking violent videogames to actual violence.”

  24. Grinnbarr says:

    Someone should get Ben Goldacre on this.

  25. WantOn says:

    Its also quite easy to draw the conclusion that the more extreme forms of violence teenagers were shown, the less they reacted because they were able to distinguish simulated, non-real violence from more realistic but less extreme violence – the kind you might encounter in everyday life.

    For so-called scientists to draw the conclusion they were looking for, from a pathetically low-powered study (statistically-speaking), rather than the equally valid one that they weren’t looking for, is frankly outrageous. As others have stated, how on earth this came to be published in a ‘scientific’ journal is deeply, deeply worrying to me, speaking as a trained physicist.

  26. Measurements says:

    Did I miss something or is there no control group in this ‘test’?

  27. tomwaitsfornoman says:

    I once shot a man in Reno just to become desensitized enough to play Kingpin. Or was it Soldier of Fortune…

  28. Mortcinder says:

    If you show 60 short clips of the same general subject to a teenager one after the other his emotional response is always going to decrease. That´s not desensitizing, it´s called BOREDOM! If they showed 60 clips of hot girls in their underwear to male heterosexual teenagers they would have concluded that exposure to partial nudity makes them gay.

  29. lolazo says:

    When I was a kid, I was very sensitive to violence, I closed my eyes when there was a gore scene in a movie. Now I just look and laugh, or find it perfectly normal.

    But, when I was a kid, I got into a lot of fights with other kids, I was very violent, and now I just don’t remember the last time I hit someone, I can’t get violent even if I’m getting assaulted in the streets, and I always avoid all conflicts.

    How do they explain this?

  30. HerrSchmidt says:

    Those of you in the Americas, or access to the right torrented files should watch a certain episode of Penn & Teller’s Bullshit!.
    Specifically Season Seven Episode 3: Violent Video Games

    Fun fun stuff there.

    They get Jack Thompson to explain his views :D
    Of course he equates Video Games to Polio D:
    Plus they test the “murder simulators” ability to train individuals and desensitize them by having a 9 year old Violent Video Game playng soon to be “school threat” fire a real Assault Rifle.

    Plus they point out the numerous holes in the various studie’s theories that they have tried to foist upon us.

  31. Brer says:

    Desensitization effects are pretty well known with regard to all sorts of stimuli. All the Super Extreme Mega-Hardore XXXXX Porn the Internet has to offer you, for example. Habitual consumption of porn can lead to “normal” images becoming less intensely stimulating, in turn leading people to seek stronger stimuli.

    The problem with this is that with desensitization to any sort of media it is far from a hard and fast rule, and what applies to media doesn’t necessarily apply to real life. To use the porn example, a person might get goatse-ed and spammed with T&A so often that the images lose their power to shock and offend (when undesired) or to titillate (when desired)…and still be profoundly affected by the sight of their naked significant other asking them to bed. This is because there’s all manner of other emotional and situational cues that come into play when it’s a real sexual stimulus and not a JPEG from or what-have-you.

    Same deal with violence. There’s actually little evidence that even extreme desensitization to violent media will lead to desensitization to actual violent imagery. There’s many a gore-hound out there that knows Hostel by heart and watches Saw at least twice a year, yet would faint dead away if they had to work an eight hour shift in an ER’s trauma ward, let alone were faced with human-on-human violence. Again, you have all sorts of emotional, social, and situational cues that simply aren’t present.

    To sum it up even more succinctly, the problem with most media effects research when it attempts to make claims about how media representations of X change our response to real-world instances of X is that it ignores the abstraction of the former from the latter. The map is not the territory.

    Or even more succinctly: Ceci n’est pas d’une plaie soufflante.

  32. Jim Rossignol says:

    To be fair, whenever I *do* find a railgun floating in my garden i am compelled to grab it and then blast my neighbours into their constituent organs. For hi score.

  33. Comonad says:

    Can’t access the study, but the methods sound like even more bullshit than you’re realizing. Any repeated stimulus type will cause adaptation in the portion of the brain that processes it, which causes exactly the decreased response the study was looking for. So the only thing this study proves is that some portion of the brain that’s used to process violence is also used to process violence.

    • Unaco says:

      Adaptation/Desensitisation/Habituation/Potentiation through repeated stimulus, or whatever you want to call it, is not a Universal… very prevalent, but not Universal*. In this case though, I would reckon there would be habituation/sensitisation, although I haven’t read the methodology to see if that is accounted for… but from the gist of it, I don’t think it was. I’d also have criticisms, not about habituation to violent stimuli, but just to visual stimuli… make people sit for a time and be attentive to repeated stimuli, and attention will likely decrease.

      *My current research is on a ‘simple’ reflex, known as the VOR – it’s what makes your eyes move in the opposite direction to your head when you are looking at something, so that something stays in the middle of your field of view. In this sort of situation, you want that reflex to function the same no matter how many times the stimulus is repeated – if the reflex gets ‘weaker’, you’re going to get eaten, or you’re going to starve.. It does possess the capability to adapt, but that occurs due to lesions or other brain damage to parts of the circuit, or through adapting the output say – like putting magnifying glasses on monkeys, so the ratio, or gain, of head to eye movements change. But there is no habituation through repeated stimuli.

  34. W Main says:

    I should really publish my honour’s research topic. I did an experimental project into whether Tetris is able to improve the cognitive abilities of the mind, with the conclusions suggesting that yes, it does, though only for a temporary amount of time.

    As good fun but a nightmare to organise.

  35. Mavvvy says:

    Yeah I remember the time before computer games when there was no violence in the world…..erm…

  36. itsallcrap says:

    This must be bullshit. I got GTA IV over eighteen months ago and yet the frequency with which I beat prostitutes to death has remained unchanged since 2005.

  37. Sagan says:

    Some time ago someone linked a lot of good studies about aggression related to watching violent TV shows. For example click this link and read the part “longitudinal studies”. Seems pretty convincing to me that there is a link between watching violent TV as a kid and becoming a more aggressive person as an adult.

    The study that this article is about… I think it’s defensible. They have a very large “discussion” section where they name all kinds of studies to show that if you become desensitized to violence, you are also more likely to be more accepting of violence and more likely to commit violent acts. (though I admit to not having read through that too carefully, and not having read any of the linked articles) And yes, the study just shows that you grow bored with violent videos when you watch a lot of violent videos. But if that can make you more accepting of violence, then surely we have a problem.
    And it’s not like you need a long term study when teenagers watch TV or videos on Youtube every day. If the effect lasts for only one day, well you already have a problem.

    I mean this confirms that we need an age rating for movies. And if you want to transfer these findings to video games, we also need an age rating for video games. Surely everyone agrees with that. So why are you so aggressive towards this study?

    • cjlr says:

      But there’s a massive, and nowhere explained, leap between acknowleding desensitization towards depictions of violence due to exposure, and any resulting desensitization, as it were, to the commission of violent acts in reality. And the difference between depictions of real or simulated violence. Or the difference in whether it’s presented as real or simulated…

  38. perilisk says:

    It’s easier if you remember that there are a lot of people who think of other people as a problem to be solved rather than autonomous equals with all the moral respect that requires (while they’re more well-intentioned than people who see others as tools to use, their self-righteousness can make them even more ruthless in pursuing their goals). These people will say whatever it takes to justify imposing their own sense of correctness on others, and right now “science” has more cachet among the Western elites than “God”. They can be found in every religion and ideology, because the behavior arises from a personality trait rather than an idea. Just sayin’

  39. Daave says:

    From my own experience reading and writing scientific papers, it is usually down to one person, and it is down to them what conclusions they draw and assertions they make. Having references and being published are in no way a guarantee of being a rigorous scientific paper. There is considerable pressure on academics to publish papers regualrly or they are not seen as contributing to their field.

    • Lambchops says:

      Yup. It’s also worth looking (as John alluded to in his original post) at where studies are published when they crop up. I’m no expert in this in other fields than my own but there are certain journals that I’d trust and others that I’d be wary of as they have a tendancy to publish quite a few less rigorous looking papers.

  40. Daniel Rivas says:

    There’s a lot wrong with Impact Factor, but I do wish the BBC would take it into account when determining the size of salt-pinch they’re going to take when reporting on science matters. Although something like this still shouldn’t have slipped through if it had been published in a journal that gets more cites.

    At least BBC policy now is to link to the actual paper. Or, I thought it was, but this report still just links to the journal.


  41. Lambchops says:

    Oh and I take it we’ve all read this wonderful parody on the BBC’s (and tabloids) science articles by now? If not, then do so – it’s absolutely sport on.

    link to

  42. man-eater chimp says:

    “Graphic Violence in the media.

    Does it glamorize violence? Sure.
    Does it desensitize us to violence? Of course.
    Does it help us tolerate violence? You bet.
    Does it stunt our empathy for our fellow beings? Heck yes.
    Does it cause violence? Well that’s hard to prove.

    The trick is to ask the right question”

    Gotta love Calvin and Hobbes, has all the answers you will ever need, And I suppose it can apply to video games as well.

    And regarding the media posting it? Well if they published stories saying that absolved it, then no one would read it.

  43. Shagittarius says:

    I wonder if the violent acts were real violence or fake simulated violence. That would be important to know.

  44. Minicow says:


    But “venting” doesn’t help, is the thing. It just teaches people to require at outlet for anger and stress rather than simply exercising a bit of emotional control.

    • mandrill says:

      We are not adequately equipped/trained to exercise such emotional control though. everyone needs an outlet of some sort. finding the right outlet, is the trick.

      If your outlet is rolling down the high street of your home town, off your face and looking for someone to stab, then you’re doing it wrong.

      Video games as an outlet is one of the best; it generally doesn’t involve anyone else (in the immediate vicinity at least), unlike many sports in which you do run the risk of causing injury to yourself and others, and you know that what you are doing in the games is not real. A well designed game will still push all the right buttons to give you an outlet for your violent tendencies.

  45. l1ddl3monkey says:

    I’m still waiting for the study where they survey a lot of long term gamers, people in their 30’s like me, who’ve been playing violent games for decades and have no history of or propensity towards violence whatsoever.

    Surely games have been around long enough that there’s a big enough group of people that fit the criteria to undertake the study? Why is it always “Lets see what happens if we show a kid this”?

    I guess no one wants to hear about the enormous numbers of innofensive tax-paying working married-with-kids gamers that exist, because it goes against the current trend for scapegoating everything on video games.

    • Wulf says:

      Yep, this is exactly right. Really, I see some sensationalism in them thar Sciency bits. This just fuels my feeling really that psychiatry is just a bit of a lark, since we never have any solid evidence in regards to anything behaviourally, everyone’s just making massive guesses and assumptions.

      Give me a study grant, I can do that!

  46. golden_worm says:

    Some speak the sounds
    But speak in silly voices
    Like computergames are silly
    Though they fills ya head with noises
    There transmissions bring submission
    As ya mold to the unreal
    And mad boy grips the mouse
    with a fist full of steel.

  47. alwaysblack says:

    You can equally draw the conclusion that the ‘violence’ they were becoming desensitised to wasn’t real. Let’s say your primordial brain leaps into alert mode when it sees a violent video, realises it’s not real and then gradually stops giving the video any priority as a threat.

  48. dragon_hunter21 says:

    So wait.
    The study demonstrated that watching violent images repeatedly = a lowered emotional response to them.
    Kids playing violent video games = kids committing more violent crime?

    I mean, I suppose there’s a tenuous link in that the kids might think less of doing something violent… But I know then when I’m done with a game of GTA, I don’t feel any more violent. In fact, I feel quite relaxed. Multiplayer- well, sometimes that’s a different story.

  49. DMJ says:

    Gaming violence /
    Researchers make me angry. /
    Where is my rifle?

  50. Mil says:

    Others have said this already, but the more I know about the social “sciences”, the more I realise that they certainly don’t deserve to use the word science any more than intelligent design does. It’s not even a matter of methodological weaknesses per se, it’s a matter of fundamental attitude. A scientific study is supposed to carefully justify every step leading to the results, to show that it doesn’t introduce unproven assumptions, it’s free from deliberate or accidental biases, etc. Yet the social studies I see don’t even seem to acknowledge this as an issue; their attitude is more of a belief that as long as you have some sort of survey at the core, you’re DOING SCIENCE! Wow.

    • MrEvilGuy says:

      Read Keith’s comment shortly after this, and then walk away with your head down in shame for speaking of a subject out of your domain of knowledge.