Quick post: Violent media make reactive aggressive behaviour more likely. Case closed?

Even brief exposure to violent media diminishes the responses in those areas of the brain associated with control over reactive aggression. (Interestingly, this is not the case with other equally arousing media.)

Deric Bownds’ Mindblog alerts us to the following study by Kelly, et al., ‘Repeated Exposure to Media Violence Is Associated with Diminished Response in an Inhibitory Frontolimbic Network’.

Using functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI), we found that repeated exposure to violent media, but not to other equally arousing media, led to both diminished response in right lateral orbitofrontal cortex (right ltOFC) and a decrease in right ltOFC-amygdala interaction. Reduced function in this network has been previously associated with decreased control over a variety of behaviors, including reactive aggression. Indeed, we found reduced right ltOFC responses to be characteristic of those subjects that reported greater tendencies toward reactive aggression. Furthermore, the violence-induced reduction in right ltOFC response coincided with increased throughput to behavior planning regions.

These novel findings establish that even short-term exposure to violent media can result in diminished responsiveness of a network associated with behaviors such as reactive aggression. The present results indicate that violent media exert a unique effect on a cortical network that is associated with the regulation of reactive aggression and other context-dependent behaviors. This effect may be part of a broad mechanism that can link exposure to violent media with the emergence or increased likelihood of aggressive behavior. Given the complex nature of aggression, however, it should not be taken as the complete mechanism itself. Further studies should determine the role of other aggression-related networks and examine how and when these changes interact with behavioral phenotypes.  

Does this change/confirm your view/…?

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17 Responses

  1. This doesn’t change my view. Until they do work on other factors it probably won’t change anyone’s view I wouldn’t think.

    Eg are those who are reactive more likely to view this kind of media?

  2. Evan. Nor me. Who knows what it means? It’s on the same level as kick the coke machine and you get a coke. The machine likes you, right? Why else would it behave that way? Only this is the reverse–we kick a human and see how the gears turn.

    But the machine is determinate and the human is indeterminate because life forms are users, and a human is a user par excallance. We can pretty well bet that the stimulus that turns the masochist on turns most of us off. What finally counts is not what the neurons say, but how what they say is used. When the last electro-chemical event in the human system relevant to social behavior is charted, we still will be no closer to predicting its meaning than a bell shaped curve(based upon social norms) will allow.

  3. evan – Agreed. But to play devil’s advocate: if people who are more reactive more likely to watch that stuff…I’m not sure how to finish this sentence, but let’s just say that I’m not sure that such a connection would make me feel easier about more and more violence being portrayed.

  4. dm-smith – Hard to argue with that. But let me come at it from a different angle. Say you could decide what kind of media a kid is exposed to, would you decide to limit the violence they’re exposed to? If not, how come? Is so, why?

  5. evan and dm-smith – I thought I’d just raise a point that did catch my eye: “repeated exposure to violent media, but not to other equally arousing media“.

    First, I wouldn’t be surprised if neurologists do quantify amounts/levels of arousal!

    Second, do they mean sexually arousing material? If so, this study is the beginning of a case that could be made against violence in movies and not against sexual material. (I mention this because I recently heard a European film director complaining that the US censorship rules mean that nudity easily gets a film a rating which means fewer bums on seats, but violence is by and large OK.)

  6. Dr. Steve: My child’s exposure to media programs was restricted to what she was ready to deal with. My Swedish wife grew up with nudity in the family, and I was okay with that, so nudity, per se, in media was okay from day one. Sex and violence had to wait several years. So did some movies without either but which she wouldn’t understand. Understanding was the criterion, not the content.

    I went to read the study, but the site was down for repairs or something. In terms of what we have, there are a number of questions about the design. Just “watching violent media” is a far more complex experimental treatment than it sounds.

    First, we need to know what kind of violence was shown; one would expect that if inhibitions of reactive aggression were measured, the violence seemed directed toward the subject. You’d not expect that response unless there was an empathic threat felt. I would expect veiwers, fully aware that they were watching, not actually involved in violence, to relax inhibitions of reactive aggression–at least defensive reactions–with repetition of the stimulus. Repetition, especially monotony, is a good way to get the brain to block signals. Is defensive reaction differentiated in the study from say, from arousals associated with idenfication with the aggressor as opposed to victim? Second, what media content is equally arousing as violence? Equal in what way? A true analogue is pretty tough. And arousing in what what way? What other than violence will evoke an inhibition of aggresssive reaction? Certainly, responses to sexual context would be an entirely different type of arousal.

  7. dm-smith – Unfortunately I can’t address even one of your insightful queries about the study. Hope it becomes available for closer reading soon.

    Re your opening paragraph – doesn’t ‘understanding’ beg the question somewhat? Can we ever be said to fully understand sex and violence? (Clinical experience suggests not.) Your caution suggests that you accept that exposure might be harmful – perhaps even in the way the study suggests.

  8. I agree that “understanding” is rather vague. We tried to guage our daughter’s progress out of childhood egocentrism, development of empathy, and general intellectual development as measures of her “understanding.” Contrary to adults who(presumably) have achieved maturity) children are not ready for any and all social experiences.

    I do think media exposure can be harmful, but not in the forms usually argued to justify censorship. I don’t think pornography, per se, leads to sexual crimes; I think sexual criminals are attracted to pornography. I think violence in movies is much the same thing.

    On the other hand, I think a media that normalizes pornography and violence as fun and exciting will impact negatively upon a society and eventually increase violence and sexual crimes, if for no other reason that weakened social standards. Still, I remain a freedom of speech extremist. I suspect that political advocacy of violence, if it becomes frequent enough, will lead to violence. But I’m opposed to incitement prosecution. First, it’s not the individual speech that is causal, but the attitudes of the auditors in conjunction with the social climate. Speech deprives no one of their free will; it is not a witch’s spell. An “incited” audience does nothing it is not predisposed to do. I prefer the risks of freedom to the dubious, as well as clearly anti-democratic, effects of censorship.

  9. dm-smith – I’m with you in defending free speech against censorship.

    I’ve lived in a country with heavy state censorship – political and cultural. The political censorship seemed not to have any dampening effect on the opposition (actual repression did). It did help supporters of the regime to avoid asking uncomfortable questions, though.

    The cultural censorship did, I believe have an effect – impossible to prove, of course. For example, there does seem to be a darn sight more promiscuity than before. Of course there was infidelity then, but not the acceptance that women can (should?) have multiple sexual partners – that attitude and behaviour is new.

    One comment I’d argue with is: “Speech deprives no one of their free will; it is not a witch’s spell”.

    Let’s move away from speech per se and then come back to it. Psychoanalysis has the notion of projective identification whereby one person, it is contended, unconsciously ‘puts’ unwanted inner stuff ‘into’ another person whose is thereby changed.

    Clinically this might manifest in the therapist finding themselves unable to think (except for the dimly apparent thought, “Come on, think, concentrate!” Leaving aside the theory, I do think that the phenomenon does exist. Another example: someone ‘dumps’ onto another; the dumper walks away feeling lighter and thinking more optimistic thoughts, while the dumpee feels down and thinking pessimistic thoughts. In other words, both parties have materially changed.

    If you can go along with me thus far than perhaps you’ll agree that it is conceiveable that speech can have real effects which may have little to do with the auditor and a lot to do with the conscious and/or unconscious intentions of the speaker.

    I can’t go along with Oprah on this one: she says we can’t blame our feelings on anyone else.

  10. I agree with the phenomenon you describe. Speech is supposed to have effects, consquences; otherwise, we wouldn’t need to protect it. But it is a stimulus without a determinate result. I also agree with Oprah. I think we have to take responsibility for our feelings.

    I think we have to take responsibility for our acts which we have reason to believe would be harmful/hurtful. By that I mean, we have special obligations to persons with whom we have special relationships, and they are greater or lesser depending upon the depth of the relationship. If I say hurtful things to someone in a love relationship, I can’t escape responsibilty by telling that person to own their own feelings. That’s contrary to relationship and ridiculous.

    On the other hand, my assumption is that adults must have a real social life capability to cope with speech in social contexts and its problems. If you can’t deal with the slings and arrows of social life, become a recluse. So if someone you love habitually abuses you with words, get a clue, baby.

    The system theorist Ashby had an insightful aphorism: the least stable component tyrannizes the system. There is no greater tyranny than that of the weak, helpless, sick, sensitive, and precisely because they are the least stable component of a family.

    I have a maxim I call the SUP-SUP principle (actually, a bit more vulgarly expressed with people I know): “Screwed up people screw up people.” So get away from them. If you interact with crazy people, your behavior will have to be crazy to make sense. Over the long term . . . . Well, no need to go into that. There’s a case on record where a paranoid schizophrenic convinced a normal that the doomsday machine was stored in a given warehouse. They were arrested trying to break in.

    So, yes, I believe speech has consequences. But I also believe that we have an obligation in a free society to live up to a free society’s requirements. Because some plead ultra-sensitivity, infirmity or weakness doesn’t justify limiting freedom of speech.

  11. dm-smith – Some NB ideas: the mutual responsibility of each party; the SUP-SUP principle; the tyranny of the weak. Nice!

    One, thing, though, I’m not sure we can go so far as to say that the fragile, sensitive one is the least stable on in the family. It very often goes is matched pairs (one side of either ‘pair’ might be more than one person). Sadist and masochist, the healthy one and the designated patient, folie a deux, Klebold and Harris….

    These two construct each other (kind of like the master-slave dialectic where the one doesn’t exist without the other).

    I’m hoping to have a guest post soon on negative and positive attributional bias which will suggest that the untrusting and the trusting attract each other like negative and positive poles. (And, I would add, sort of bring each other into being – a bit like your normal was made crazy.)

    This doesn’t mean that your policy of keeping away from craziness is wrong – it’s definitely right! But families are systems, after all, and within their context the weakest one is often the canary in the mine.

    Contra Ashby, some family systems are stable and grossly ill – a bit of ‘tyranny’ might do them some good.

  12. More contra me than Ashby, who didn’t think much about families. I certainly agree that family stability can be based upon its infirmities, or taking care of them.

    Have you read much about Leopold and Loeb? I just googled the topic and discovered a web site devoted to the pair. They come to mind because Klebold wrote in his diary that he and Harris were godlike–though I doubt they’d read Nietzsche as had the earlier gruesome-twosome. I remember Meyer Levin’s novel _Compulsion_ as excellent.

  13. Speaking of freedom of speech, this may be of interest to you and other bloggers who read and post here. It’s a very bad definition of publication for internet purposes.

    http://www.buzzmachine.com/2007/12/26/the-lowest-common-denominator-of-speech/

  14. dm-smith – I have read Levin’s book, it was very good.

    Did you know that one of Leopold and Loew’s (classic folie a deux) intended victims was William Shawn who went on to edit the New Yorker magazine? He’s the father of the actor Wallace Shawn.

    Old man Shawn is described as a very singular figure – I wonder to what extent this knowledge affected him.

  15. dm-smith – I downloaded the article you linked – thanks. Geez!

    I have been pondering the way bloggers (me too, for sure) pontificate about matters way outside their purview…but I didn’t turn my mind to the terrible possibility of legal problems.

    It has to happen, I guess, that a teeny little blogger gets sued by an elephant. My hope would be that there would be enough ridicule in the blogosphere to humiliate that elephant into going away. (But if said elephant is, say, a Saudi elephant, he may be immune from that kind of shame.)

  16. I didn’t know.

    No Wally Shawn, no _My Dinner with Andre_ I don’t know if I can handle that thought.

  17. dm-smith – Come to think of it, Wallace is a pretty singular figure himself. What must it me like to have a father who knew that his life was borrowed time (right expression?).

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