The effect that violent films and games have on our minds, and the implications for their place in society, has been a source of much heated debate. Now, a new study looks set to fan the flames even further. Several studies have found that violent media can desensitise people to real acts of violence, but Brad Bushman from the University of Michigan and Craig Anderson from Iowa State University have produced the first evidence that this can actually change a person's behaviour, affecting their decisions to help others in need.
Using professional actors, they found that after 20 minutes of playing a violent video game, people who heard a loud fight that ended with an injury took longer to help the victim, and believed that the fight was less serious. Likewise, people who watched a violent film took longer to help an injured woman to pick up her crutches outside the cinema. In the duo's own words, "Violent media make people numb to the pain and suffering of others."
In the first study, Bushman and Anderson recruited 320 students under the pretence of studying their tastes in video games. The recruits played 20 minutes of either a violent video game (Carmageddon, Duke Nukem, Mortal Kombat or Future Cop) or a non-violent one (Glider Pro, 3D Pinball, Austin Powers or Tetra Madness). After playing, the recruits were left alone to fill in a questionnaire. They wrote their favourite type of video game (fighting, fantasy, skill, sports and so on) followed by over 200 questions on such games.
This massive list of questions was a red herring, designed to keep the volunteers busy. Three minutes into the time, Bushman and Anderson played a recording outside the room of two actors fighting about how one stole the other's partner. The actors' gender was matched to the recruit inside and the two quickly descended into a shouting match and came to blows.
First actor: You stole her from me. I'm right, and you know it, you loser. Second actor: Loser? If I'm a loser, why am I dating your ex-girlfriend? First actor: Okay, that's it, I don't have to put up with this shit any longer. [At this point, the experimenter threw a chair onto the floor and kicked the door to the participant's room.] Second actor: [groans in pain] First actor: Ohhhh, did I hurt you? Second actor: It's my ankle, you bastard. It's twisted or something. First actor: Isn't that just too bad? Second actor: I can't even stand up! First actor: Don't look to me for pity. Second actor: You could at least help me get off the floor. First actor: You've gotta be kidding me. Help you? I'm outta here. [The first actors slams the door and leaves; the second actor groans in pain for 1.5 minutes]
The first actor had left so there was no physical threat and a pilot study with 40 students showed that all of them thought that the fight was real. When the recording finished, the experimenter started a stopwatch and measured how long it took the recruit to pop outside to help. Recruits who played violent games were no less likely to help the fictional victim than those playing non-violent ones, but they did take almost five times as long to do so (73 seconds compared to just 16).
Obviously, games differ in ways other than their levels of violence but Bushman and Anderson found that, on average, the players didn't rate the violent games as any more action-packed, enjoyable, fun, absorbing, arousing, boring, entertaining, exciting, involving, stimulating or addictive than the non-violent ones - they were, obviously, rated as being much more violent.
You could also argue that many of the recruits who played violent games helped eventually, even though they delayed. That's true but remember also that this is based on the influence of just 20 minutes of gaming, with games randomly assigned to players. Bushman and Anderson also found that just 11% of people whose favourite game genre was "fighting with hands or weapon" helped the actor, while 26% of those who preferred non-violent games did so.
If they didn't after about 5 minutes, the experimenter stuck his head in and said, "Hi, I'm back. Is everything going alright in here? I just saw someone limping down the hallway. Did something happen here?" If they said they heard the fight, they were asked to rate how serious it was on a scale of 1 to 10, for a formal police report. The violent gamers were less likely to say that they heard the fight, and those that did rated it as being less serious (by an albeit small but statistically significant degree).
In their second study, Bushman and Anderson found that in a wholly natural scenario, violent movies delayed helpful behaviour. They staged a scene outside a local cinema, where a young female actor with a cast ankle pretended to drop her crutches and struggled to get them. The duo hid from view and watched how the moviegoers reacted.
They observed 162 people in total and while all of them helped the women, those who had just seen a violent R-rated film took 26% longer to come to her aid than those who had seen a PG-rated film. The gender of the cinema-goers and the size of their groups had no bearing on how long it took them to help. And if the actor dropped her crutches before the showing started, people going into the cinema behaved in the same way regardless of what film they were about to see.
So it's not that violent movies attract less helpful audience - Bushman and Anderson's results suggest that the films themselves affect a person's behaviour. It's a powerful result - the first "field experiment" showing that violent entertainment can actually affect how long someone takes to help an injured person. To the duo, these studies clearly show that "people exposed to violent media become 'comfortably numb' to the pain and suffering of others and are consequently less helpful".
The studies aren't flawless by any means. For example, in the cinema experiment, it would have been impossible to properly "blind" the researchers to the trials they were conducting - they must always have known whether the film on show was violent or not, and that could have biased their reactions as they timed the helpful behaviour of the film-goers. The delay in helping was also small (although statistically significant). The same applies to the first experiment's differences in whether recruits heard the fight or how serious they thought it was.
Even so, both experiments do show that people exposed to violent entertainment take longer to help someone else. Perhaps they feel that violence is more normal or acceptable, or because they feel less sympathy towards victims of violence. Either way the result is the same. It's also worth bearing in mind that these results are based on short and specific exposures to violent entertainment, which are part of daily life for many people.
The debate about the influence of violent entertainment is an uneasy one, coloured by the influence of billion-dollar industries, the popularity and ubiquity of such media, conservative or liberal values, and whether people enjoy violent games or films in the first place. With such powerful biases at work, getting scientific evidence through studies like this is vitally important - they help to ensure that whatever personal or policy decisions are eventually made, are informed ones.
Reference: Bushman, B., & Anderson, C. (2009). Comfortably Numb: Desensitizing Effects of Violent Media on Helping Others Psychological Science, 20 (3), 273-277 DOI: 10.1111/j.1467-9280.2009.02287.x