Monday, November 4, 2013

Do Violent Video Games Make People Violent?

"The correlation coefficient for this data is r = −.95, a near-perfect correlation in the wrong direction."

Ferguson and Kilburn (2010) published a delightful riposte to the anti-gaming hysteria that has seized American psychology. Based on their work, I wonder if it might be prudent to give a gaming console and a copy of Call of Duty 4 to every American boy on his 13th birthday. Certainly, the data do not support the thesis that increases in gaming have led to increases in violence.

From their article:
There are real risks that the exaggerated focus on VVGs, fueled by some scientists, distracts society from much more important causes of aggression, including poverty, peer influences, depression, family violence, and Gene × Environment interactions. Although it is certainly true that few researchers suggest that VVGs are the sole cause of violence, this does not mean they cannot be wrong about VVGs having any meaningful effect at all. Psychology, too often, has lost its ability to put the weak (if any) effects found for VVGs on aggression into a proper perspective. In doing so, it does more to misinform than inform public debates on this issue.


Black and Bevan (1992) conducted one of the more widely cited studies of the influence of media violence on aggression. They gave an Aggression questionnaire to people waiting in line to see either a Chuck Norris movie (Missing in Action) or a British historical costume chick-flick (A Passage to India). They gave the same questionnaire to people coming out from seeing those two movies. Here's their data (I'm just showing the data for male movie goers, because it is males who commit serious violence in society):

Aggression score before
Aggression score after
Violent movie
Non-violent movie

So, first of all, men who choose to see Chuck Norris movies are more aggressive to begin with than men who choose to see British costume dramas (12.3 v. 9.0). Seeing A Passage to India didn't have an effect on the aggression scores of those men. But seeing Missing in Action seems to have raised males' aggression scores by about 20%. The authors concluded that these results "provide support for the hypothesis that attendance at a violent film promotes aggressive tendencies."

 "I demand that people respect my rights."

But wait a minute. The authors admit that "most movie-goers leaving violent movies do not commit assault or murder. What increases in aggressivity is produced in viewers by self-exposure to violent movies may dissipate rapidly without notable effect." So the problems here are 1) how lasting are these increases in aggression, and 2) do increases in aggression scores on a survey translate into meaningful, i.e. serious, acts of actual violence?

This is one of the main problems with the research in this field: They think that they are studying violence (i.e., serious aggression), but they are actual studying non-serious aggression (e.g., your scores on a survey, your ratings of the professionalism of the experimenter, how long you blasted a fellow research subject with an air horn).

Here are some of the 22 survey items used in the "violent movie" study:

If somebody annoys me, I am apt to tell them what I think.
I demand that people respect my rights.
When arguing, I tend to raise my voice.
When people yell at me, I yell back.
When I am angry, I sometimes sulk.
I sometimes show my anger by banging on the table.
When I disapprove of my friends' behavior, I let them know it.
I would rather concede a point than get into an argument about it. (False)
I never play practical jokes. (False)

So the men who just watched Missing in Action, compared to the men waiting in line to see that movie, answered, on average, 2.5 more items like these "in the deviant direction." That is what supports the "violent films make people more violent" hypothesis.

In my opinion, the fundamental problem is that many psychologists tend to think of aggression as a bad thing -- something that, could they wave a magic wand, they would simply make disappear. This is one of the reasons behind the "zero tolerance" for violence in schools, why boys get suspended for rough housing with their friends and drawing pictures of explosions. According to the American Psychological Association, society would be better off if violent movies and videogames were banned.

Psychologists in general might benefit from a bit more exposure to the real world. Who would you want next to you in a foxhole, or as the first police officer on the scene after you called to report an intruder -- someone who scored high on that Aggression survey, or someone who scored low? Let's not forget what Chuck Norris was doing in Missing in Action -- he wasn't robbing banks or mugging old ladies, he was rescuing American prisoners-of-war. Maybe we should be more concerned that our society is not producing nearly enough of what Plato called "lean, hard dogs" and far too many "soft, fat sheep." It is a troubling state of affairs that less than one-quarter of American high school graduates meet the minimum qualifying requirements for military service. Why aren't psychologists looking into that?

Which reminds me of these words by George Orwell:

A humanitarian is always a hypocrite, and Kipling’s understanding of this is perhaps the central secret of his power to create telling phrases. It would be difficult to hit off the one-eyed pacifism of the English in fewer words than in the phrase, ‘making mock of uniforms that guard you while you sleep’.
[Kipling] sees clearly that men can only be highly civilized while other men, inevitably less civilized, are there to guard and feed them.
These statements are usually presented as:

"People sleep peaceably in their beds at night only because rough men stand ready to do violence on their behalf."

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