Parents are often concerned that their children will turn violent if they consume violent media regularly. The violent scenes in movies are thought to make viewers more prone to reenacting these aggressive acts themselves, hence the parental guidance advisories. However, has it really been proven that violent movies inspire their viewers to acts of violence?
As a study found, it depends – on the disposition of the person watching. Yes, violent movies really do promote aggression, but only if the viewer is already prone to aggression in their personality. The study was conducted by Nelly Alia-Klein, an associate professor at the Friedman Brain Institute and the Icahn School of Medicine at Mount Sinai Hospital in New York City. In the experiment, 54 healthy men were split into two groups. One group comprised of those who were aggression, with a history of getting into physical fights. The other group comprised of those who were non-aggressive. The men then had their brain activity scanned in three different scenarios: when they were shown violent scenes of shootings and street fights, when they were watching emotional but non-violent scenes, and when they were doing nothing.
The brain activity of both groups was similar while the men were watching the emotional scenes, but when it came to the violent scenes, there was a stark contrast. In the non-aggressive men, their blood pressure rose and there was increased activity in the orbitofrontal cortex, a part of the brain involved in emotion-related decision making and impulse control. On the other hand, the aggressive men had much less activity going on in their brains, and their blood pressure stayed the same or even dropped progressively. The aggressive men reported that the violent scenes made them feel inspired and determined, while the non-aggressive men reported that they felt upset or nervous.
While doing nothing, the aggressive men had more brain activity than the non-aggressive men. This suggests that the aggressive men’s brains work differently than their non-aggressive counterparts. Their lack of response while viewing the violent scenes can be attributed to the fact that violence is congruent with their personalities, and thus they are number to it than the non-aggressive men. From their reports of feeling inspired and determined after viewing the violent scenes, it is possible that violent movies may spur aggressive types on to act out what they have seen. Additionally, from the lack of activity in the impulse control part of their brains, it may be that the aggressive men are less able to control their emotions when angry, which is more likely to lead to aggression.
In another experiment by Albert Bandura, it was found that the child participants, which were between the ages of 3 and 6, were more likely to exhibit aggression if they saw a role model doing the same. Some of the children were exposed to an adult model treating a bobo doll aggressively, including sitting on it, punching it, hitting it with a hammer, and throwing it while shouting “Pow, boom”. Other children were exposed to an adult model with the same types of toys, but the adult played with a tinker toy set in a non-aggressive manner and ignored the bobo doll. When the children were shown the same toys themselves, including the bobo doll, those who had seen the adult model acting aggressively were more likely to play with the bobo doll in a similar aggressive manner. On top of that, some children also came up with their own aggressive methods of playing with the doll, which were not demonstrated by the adult model – such as punching the bobo doll on the nose.
It could be that children at a young age are simply likely to imitate others around them. They may not yet understand the implications of violence or what aggression actually is. Additionally, they may not have fully developed a personality or have a sense of right and wrong yet. If exposed to violent movies at that age, children may be more likely to emulate the actions and come across as violent. When it comes to adults, however, one’s reaction to violent movies may then depend more on their disposition.
The definition of violence, especially in movies, has been changing over the decades. A movie that was considered extremely violent in the past, such as The Untouchables from 1987, could be considered mild or average when compared with today’s movies.
When Terminator and Die Hard were released in the 1980s, they were R-rated. However, if they were to be released today, they would probably be marked PG-13 instead. In fact, many modern PG-13 action movies contain more violence than the R-rated movies of the 1980s. A journal report in Pediatrics found that from the introduction of the PG-13 label in 1985 till today, gun violence in PG-13 movies has tripled, and violence in movies has quadrupled since the 1950s.
The report was done by Brad Bushman of Ohio State University. The process of deciding how much “violence” takes place in each movie was to pick a random 15 out of the 30 top-grossing films per year from 1950 to 2012, and have the number of violent scenes in each movie counted. A violent scene was defined as a scene that contained “physical acts where the aggressor makes or attempts to make some physical contact with the intention of causing injury or death”. The analysis found that the amount of violence overall has increased progressively over the years, sometimes even within the same movie series. For instance, Terminator 3: Rise of the Machines was rated R when it was released in 2003, but Terminator Salvation contained more gun violence and was rated PG-13 when it was released in 2009. A similar trend occurred in the Die Hard sequels, with the 1990 Die Hard 2 being rated R, while Live Free or Die Hard was released in 2007 with the rating of PG-13, despite containing more gun violence and a comparative amount of overall violence to Die Hard 2.
Whatever the real reason for stepping up the levels of violence in movies, it is undeniable that rating movies as PG-13 compared to R helps movies to sell. Movie producers can rein in more income if more people are able to watch the movie – and children can represent a sizeable audience. Violence is also a bestseller in movies worldwide because violence is universal and does not need to be translated. Everyone can understand violence and its implications.
It is also possible that viewers are simply numb to violence nowadays, much like the aggressive men in the study on response to violent scenes. If one is used to consuming violent media, the old violent content will no longer be seen as such, and viewers may feel that they need more aggression for a movie to have the same impact. As such, movies will only get more violent as long as there is a demand for them.
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