Chapter 7: Applying Social Psychology To The Media
War of the Worlds – Radio broadcast that was performed by the Mercury Theatre. The
broadcast had announced that Martians had begun to attack Earth and civilians were
asked to leave town. Unfortunately, people missed the opening announcement that it was
a radio play and begun to flee or take protective measures by sealing their homes. This
example shows how powerful media can shape people’s social reality.
Republican Senator William Knowland held a 20-hour telethon in an attempt to salvage
his campaign for governer. The majority of people that watched it already supported the
governer. Knowland’s telethon demonstrates one of the limitations of the media. People
often watch programs that reflect what they already believe. If that is the case, can the
media change people’s minds? It might be the case that the media may reinforce what
people think but will not change what they think.
The media have become an integral part of our lives. The last decade has witnessed
profound changes in how adolescents use the media. The average time spent with various
media by adolescents in 2009 increased by over an hour from 1999.
Another change is how people access the media. Historically, using the media meant
watching TV programs when they were broadcast, going to movies, and reading
newspapers. Of course, the media include so much more than that today, and people’s
ways of accessing the media have expanded dramatically.
Given these profound changes in our media outlets, it is important to consider the effects
of the media in our lives:
o Do the media create a violent society?
o Can the media increase our level of general fearfulness?
o What happens when people watch pornography?
o Do the media influence what we think are important issues?
o Can the media have an effect on election?
The War of the Worlds broadcast suggests that the media can have profound effects on
our lives. Yet Senator Knowland’s telethon indicates the media have little or no impact
on what we think
How Does Media Violence Affect Us?
It is very difficult to turn on a TV for an entire evening and not watch some type of
Some TV shows include violence to focus on the harmful effects of the violence for
the victim and the victim’s family and friends. These are rare.
TV shows are 15 times more likely to either contain pro-violence messages or at best
be neutral toward violence than to contain antiviolence themes. The level of violence
found on television programming has remained fairly stable for decades. The Consequences of Viewing Media Violence
One common belief is that only violent people, or people with violent characteristics,
watch violent TV programs. However, a longitudinal study in which children were
studied when they were just beginning elementary school and then when they were in
their early 20s found that violent people are no more likely to watch violent TV programs
than are nonviolent people.
Another common belief is that violent TV programs may help people to relieve their
stress and aggressive impulses, so violent TV shows and movies may actually decrease
violence. This is commonly called the cathartic effect of watching violent media.
Unfortunately, the vast majority of research studies do not support this belief.
Results consistently demonstrate that TV violence increases violent behaviour. In fact,
Potter (2003) identified more than 30 different effects of watching TV violence,
including increased imitation of violence, short- and long- term increases in aggressive
behaviours, increased fear, desensitization to violence, and greater acceptance of
Quasi-experiments on TV violence use naturally occurring manipulations of exposure to
TV to explore the impact of TV on aggression.
A quasi-experiment looked at cities with TV stations prior to 1950 and cities with TV
stations starting in 1952 or later. Crime rates increased sooner in those cities where TV
was introduced earlier. However, during the early years of TV, it was not violent crimes
that increased; instead, the presence of a TV station in a community increased rates of
nonviolent theft (excluding auto theft). Apparently, TV, with all of its commercials, may
have made salient to people what they did not have, thereby increasing people’s
motivations to steal.
Another quasi-experiment occurred in Canada when, in 1973, a small town nicknamed
“Notel” (i.e., no television) received TV broadcasts for the first time. There were three
conditions in this quasi-experiment: a city with no TV stations (Notel), a city with one
TV station (Unitel), and a city with multiple TV stations (Multitel). Rates of violence
were compared. Unitel and Multitel were similar to Notel in terms of violence prior to
1973. The rates of aggression in Unitel and Multitel children did not change during the 2-
year person after 1973. However, rates of both physical aggression and verbal aggression
increased dramatically in Notel children after the introduction of TV.
Perhaps the most damning quasi-experiment on the effects of TV violence is Centerwall’s
(1989) analysis of homicide rates after the introduction of TV in the United States,
Canada, and South Africa. Following the introduction of TV in each of these three
countries, the homthide rates remained fairly constant for roughly 10 to 12 years but the
doubled by the 15 year. Centerwall concluded that TV violence is responsible for
approximately half of the violent homicides in each of these countries. However, if TV is
the culprit, why was there a 15-year lag between the introduction of TV and the increase in homicide rates? The most likely answer is that children are most vulnerable to the
effects of violence on TV. The effect of the introduction of TV on violent homicides may
have been delayed until children who were 3 or 4 years old when TV was introduced
were old enough to begin committing acts of violence – typically in their late adolescent
years. Extraneous factors may include the violent social upheavals in two of these
countries at the same time the homicides increased (the civil rights and antiwar
movements in the United States and the antiapartheid movement in South Africa.
However, the data do indict TV
Longitudinal studies have also found evidence that TV violence increases violent
behaviour. In 1977, approximately 600 first and third grade students from the Chicago
area were interviewed concerning their TV viewing habits. Two thirds of these children
were re-interviewed when they were between 21 and 23 years of age. The levels of
violent TV that these children watched in 1977 were a stronger predictor of their levels of
violence 15 years later than were their levels of aggression when they were children.
(Huesmann et al., 2003)
Experimental studies are the best technique for establishing causal relationships between
two variables. Numerous experimental studies have demonstrated such a relationship
between TV violence and aggressive behaviour. A meta-analysis (i.e., a statistical
procedure for assessing the overall results of numerous studies) of 230 experimental
studies of media violence found that exposure to media violence consistently resulted in
higher levels of a variety of aggressive behaviours. Note: most of the experimental
studies were conducted in a laboratory setting, and so the aggressive behaviours were
“milder” than the aggression found outside the laboratory.
The evidence is overwhelming that TV violence influences people’s levels of aggressive
behaviour but that is not the only effect of watching TV violence. Chances are that the
people engaged in the violence were performing some fairly risky behaviour. Performing
any type of criminal activity is risky because it may result in being arrested and serving
time in jail. Likewise, running after and trying to apprehend someone who is trying to kill
you is fairly risky. Survey research suggests that adolescents who watch TV violence are
more likely to engage in other risky behaviours as well as being more violent. They are
also more likely to practice unsafe sex, drive at very dangerous speeds, not wear seat
belts, and use illegal drugs.
Media violence has focussed nearly exclusively on movie and TV violence. But research
has shown that playing- or even just watching- violent video games can have the same
effects as does watching TV violence. Playing video games that involve prosocial
behaviours such as helping other players or cleaning up the environment have been found
to increase prosocial behaviours in adolescents.
Aggressive behaviour is overdetermined, or has multiple causes. Many different factors
can cause a person to be aggressive such as aggressive personalities, frustration and
anger, stress, general arousal, temperature, loud noises, having being abused as a child, and culture. Males also tend to be more aggressive than females and aggression is found
to be higher in the United States.
Imitation of Violence
On March 9, 2001, Lionel Tate was convicted of murdering Tiffany Eunick. She was 6
years old at the time of her death. In causing Tiffany’s death, Lionel used wrestling
moves he had seen performed by one of his favorite wrestling stars. Her injuries were
equivalent to a fall from a three-story-building. Lionel was 14 years old when he was
convicted of murder and sentenced to life in prison.