Why would anyone only watch violent films

Television and violence

The discussion about the effect of depictions of violence in the mass media is a topic that appears again and again in public when violent crimes of young people occur after an obvious presentation from television. Some then see television as a danger that destroys culture and poses a threat to humanity, while others deny these fears and see no dangerous effects of television on people. Even in ancient Greece, people thought about whether storytellers gave children wrong thoughts through stories about atrocities that they shouldn't have. Therefore "only the good fairy tales (...) should be introduced" and "the poets of fairy tales and legends should be supervised" (Kunczik, 1998, p.20). According to Elias and Foucault, the social organization of violence changed fundamentally at the beginning of the modern era, because the basic form of psychization of social violence organization to which the modern media owe their success arose. What used to be the practice of violence in the real world and was tolerated was now only allowed to take place in the imagination or in the media world, i.e. in images and texts (cf. Rathmayr, 1996, p. 39).

Science agrees that depictions of violence in the media harbor risks and that there is no question of controversial evidence. Both the Fainting thesis - The media have no effect whatsoever on the recipient - as well as the Omnipotence thesis - Media have great effects - are to be regarded as refuted. The omnipotence thesis exists in a pessimistic form - media are harmful - and in an optimistic form - media are useful for reacting off harmful tendencies (catharsis hypothesis). The most plausible is currently Double dose thesis in the form of the risk thesis, which states that recipients, when confronted with violence in their real environment, are susceptible to being influenced in their actions by fictitious violence.

Many young people perceive media violence in horror films, for example, not because the violence itself is enjoyable, but rather to survive such films. The perpetrator is the film, the victim is the viewer, and this is the victim who survives the perpetrator. That's why the Imitation stimulus initially rather not in the reproduction of the action in life, but at most in the wish to be able to witness a comparable situation in life as a spectator or voyeur. Therefore, when watching films that contain violence, there is primarily the desire in some cases to endure this visualized violence psychologically, which is known as a kind Fearfulness - comparable to the Fear of joy in the child - can denote that arises from the awareness of a real external danger to which an individual exposes himself willingly in the hope of being able to get through the danger and control the fear associated with it. This test of courage motif also appears frequently in fairy tales and adventure stories. It trusts that it will be able to return unharmed to a safe place after the danger. When watching violent television content, a feeling of pleasure and fear is felt at the same time, which must be compensated, whereby younger adults still enjoy the tension that the simultaneous experience of danger and security, of threat and rescue causes. Men experience more the pleasure, women more the fear.

The fact that simplistic ideas about the effects of the media are so widespread can be explained not least by the fact that everyone interacts with the media on a daily basis and therefore believes they have their own basis for assessment. That way you can popular scientific conceptions of effect emerge, which the mass media themselves are helping to establish. Media impact research is a good example of the application of so-called "Do It Yourself Social Science" (DYSS) (Heller 1986), in which the rule of thumb is: the simpler a thesis looks, the more attractive and successful it is for the layperson.

See also the worksheet Computer games make you aggressive or Media and psychology

Short-term effects of violence on television

In a typical experiment, children are randomly divided into two groups. One group then sees a non-violent film, the other a violent film. Then the children played hockey, and observers who do not know which film a child has seen determine who assaults whom and how often during the game. In one case, for example, it was seven- to nine-year-olds who beat their comrades during the game, rammed their elbows, threw them to the ground, pulled their hair or otherwise violently maltreated. The study, like many others, showed a clear effect: those who had previously seen the violent film behaved more violently while playing hockey than those who had previously seen a non-violent film.

Medium-term effect of television on violence

We owe medium-term data to scientists from Canada. They tracked down a small town - let's call it Notel (for "no television") - in which there was no television until 1973 due to its geographical location in a valley. The city was normal in all respects except for the lack of television, which is significant in terms of the generality of the results. Even on some remote islands there was no television at that time, but the living conditions in these places were very different from the normal. Not so in this city: there were streets, bus connections, schools and everything else that is part of normal life; just no television. This should change within a few months due to the installation of a new transmitter. Before that happened, the investigation began.

Two other communities were selected as control groups. One had television for seven years, but only one channel (so let's call it Unitel), while the other (Multitel) had cable television with many channels for 15 years. At two points in time, two years apart, the behavior of children in these three communities was compared both through observation in natural play situations and through questioning the teachers and the children and adolescents. It was found that within the two-year period in which television was introduced, the level of aggression in the community increased: verbal aggressiveness doubled and physical aggressiveness nearly tripled - a highly significant result. This affected both boys and girls in all age groups examined. A connection was also found between the time the children and adolescents spent in front of the television and the propensity for violence. In contrast, the level of violence in the two control communities remained the same.

Long-term effect of television on violence

In the USA, numerous studies have been carried out on the effects of depictions of violence on television on children and young people (cf. Smith & Donnerstein 1998). Significant correlations between the consumption of television violence and aggressive thoughts, attitudes or violent behavior could be demonstrated in almost all of them. Experimental studies therefore suggest a causal relationship between these variables for different age groups (preschool age, childhood, adolescence), with these relationships remaining fairly stable with respect to time, place and demographic criteria. Most of the investigations are correlation studies that do not allow any conclusions to be drawn about the causality, since both the direction of the relationship and the relationship are unknown mediating variables could come about, which in turn have a causal effect on aggression and frequent consumption. For example, people with an aggressive personality might prefer violent media presentations.

A report by the American Psychological Association found that television violence could exacerbate children with aggressive tendencies. For example, children with school, social, or interpersonal problems would tend to watch more television, which in turn increases their aggressive behavior. A significant correlation between the extent of the consumption of television violence at the age of 8 and the delinquency at the age of 22 could be proven, so that it can be assumed that the received aggressive behavior finds its way into the behavioral patterns of the children

Smith & Donnerstein (1998) list the following context variables that have an influence on the relationships:

  • Identification with perpetrator high (e.g. attractive hero as role model)
  • Justification high (e.g. "good" versus "bad")
  • Reward or lack of punishment for violence
  • Consequences (no realistic representations of pain, injuries, etc.)
  • Presence of weapons high (serve as cues)
  • Extent, pictorial quality high (duration, spatial distance, blood and viscera, repetition)
  • Strong sense of humor (trivialization, positive reinforcement)
  • Realism high (cartoons vs. TV news)
  • Identification with victim high (empathic feeling for attractive victim)
  • Little justification
  • No punishment

They point out that the effect of the depictions of violence can be influenced by aspects of the cognitive development of the recipients. Younger children in particular are less able to distinguish between fantasy and reality than older children. The representations perceived as "real" can reinforce the learning of aggression in young children. In addition, in feature films and series, the violent characters are often only punished towards the end of the program and not immediately after the crime, whereby younger children are less able to recognize the connection between the previous behavior of the perpetrator and his later retaliation than older children.

A study by Mark Singer, et al. (Pediatrics 1999, 104, pp. 878-884) of Case Western Reserve University in Cleveland, Ohio, found that children who watch violent films on television without their parents were more likely to become violent themselves than children who watched television see. They examined the television behavior of over 2,200 students between the ages of 7 and 15 years. The questions that children answered in a questionnaire related to the duration and content of daily television consumption, to the supervision by parents and to experiences of violence in the children's everyday life. The researchers found a clear connection between violent behavior and high consumption of violent films on television. Boys showed consistently more willingness to use violence and violent behavior than girls.

Jeffrey Johnson (Science 2002) from Columbia University, New York, showed in another long-term study that watching TV more than an hour a day promotes violence. In their study, the team observed over 700 people from puberty to adulthood. The result: the more often adolescents watch television, the more likely they are to be violent as adults. Of the frequent viewers with more than three hours of television per day, five times more people committed acts of violence than in the group of abstinence from television who watched television for less than an hour. Using statistical methods, the researchers were able to prove that television consumption is actually responsible for the acts of violence and not other influences that encourage violence, such as a low family income or a run-down residential area.

The average student in the United States has spent about 13,000 hours in school after graduating from high school (that is, twelve years) - and 25,000 hours in front of the TV. He has seen 32,000 murders and 40,000 attempted murders and 200,000 acts of violence. The perpetrator gets away with impunity in 73 percent of the cases, in more than half (58 percent) of the cases the violence does not hurt, and in only four percent of all acts of violence non-violent alternatives to problem-solving are shown. If children's brains now extract the rules from their experiences, i.e. from the scenes of violence they have seen, then only the following can have spread in their brains in the form of deep trampling paths: Violence is very common in the world, it solves problems and there is a lot to do with it no alternative, violence doesn't hurt, and the perpetrator gets away with it.

There are very many very clear studies of the effects of violence shown on television on real violence. They show that the effect is firstly dose-dependent (the more television is watched, the greater the propensity for violence), secondly it is also evident in girls, thirdly not only affects young children, but also adolescents and adults, and fourthly also people who are not prone to violence. The possible mechanisms of action range from emotional dulling and facilitating effects for a willingness to use violence to learning on the model, for which there are experimental studies in each case.

In a long-term study, 875 eight-year-old boys were examined over a period of 22 years. Those who saw an above-average number of scenes of violence on television when they were eight years old when they were first examined were more likely to be judged by their teachers to be mean and aggressive. The same boys were more likely to conflict with the law by age 19 and more likely to be convicted of violent crime or violent towards wives and children by age 30.

Extent of violence on television

A carefully methodical study of the depictions of violence on television by Grimm, Kriste & Weiß (2005) dealt with the question: How is violence presented in television formats and in what context is it portrayed and how is it rated? In addition to taking stock of the incidence of violence in the programs, the consequences, which child and youth protection risks can be expected from the perspective of impact research, were also discussed.

The authors registered ten TV programs (public and private) between October 2002 and the end of January 2003 by means of a Content analysis examined (1,960 programs, 4,968 program trailers), coded and evaluated and counted 8,832 units of violence (acts of violence or consequences). It is noticeable that especially in the opening credits or trailers of the programs there are visually detailed violence sequences, which the media presumably consider to be particularly attractive. Of the 1,162 hours examined, 30.2 hours, that is 2.6%, are devoted exclusively to depictions of violence. These made up a relatively small part of the broadcast, but it was in over half of all shipments (58.2%) at least one depiction of violence is to be found. Three quarters of the depictions of violence showed realistic or factual (authentic) violence with an increasing mixture of factual and realistic violence (reality TV). Violence is most often shown on television in the context of crime and crime. In entertainment formats, violence also mostly takes place in the context of crime and crime, but relatively often in the context of everyday life and family as well as marriage and relationships. Violence in the thematic environment of marriage and relationships is also most often shown in a tense and aggressive atmosphere. Both perpetrators and victims are mostly male, while women are most often shown as victims in programs that mix facts and fictions or show violence in realistic contexts. While the punishment of the perpetrators in realistic worlds usually carried out by means of the rule of law, in fantastic worlds the perpetrators are mainly sanctioned by physical harm. Perpetrators characterized positively in fantastic worlds are characterized negatively in contrast to mostly not sanctioned. Overall, physical damage dominates television, psychological consequences of violence are shown relatively rarely. Extreme physical damage, such as severe injuries or death, is shown primarily on reality TV (62.3%) and in journalistic formats (news 54.7%, reports 53.6% and magazines 51.9%). Depictions of violence with socially accepted motives (such as self-defense, protection of life, performance of official duties) account for around a third of the violence shown, and two thirds of the violence antisocial motives exercised (such as short-term anger, personal enrichment, retaliation or revenge). In court, psychological and conflict shows, emotional and sexual motives are the main theme, with the motive of sexual satisfaction in connection with violence in reality TV programs even taking first place. In almost all formats, violence is mostly carried out with an neutral message is shown, i.e. violence is neither rejected nor propagated. The authors summarize:

  • Realistic resp.factual violence shown more often than unrealistic violence. A paradigm shift is thus emerging with regard to the occurrence of violence: violence on television relates more to the "real" world than to an unrealistic one.
  • On television, violence is largely an integral part of a male world, with which boys are offered stereotypical conflict resolution patterns.
  • Conversation formats often show violence in the context of "everyday life and family" and "marriage and relationship". It cannot be ruled out that younger viewers relate media violence in the private sphere to their own living environment and may react with fear.
  • Violence is rarely criticized. It is up to the audience how they rate the violence. From the point of view of building values, this can be problematic for younger viewers because they are left alone in evaluating violence.
  • The mixing of facts and fictions in depictions of violence should be viewed particularly critically: fictional depictions of violence can be misunderstood by young viewers as depicting real violence, as it is difficult to see what is staged or authentic. Emotionalising and dramatizing real violence increases the potential for negative effects.

The study shows that the "disarmament" on television with regard to the depictions of violence has not yet taken place. Rather, violence is increasingly presented in a fictional realistic combination and becomes a problem especially for adolescents, as they are often not yet able to recognize the boundaries between staging and authenticity in numerous formats. The study also shows that violence also triggers anxiety in children on a psychological level.


The television ensures
that you are entertained by people in your living room,
that one would never invite.
Shirley MacLaine

Mechanisms of action of violence on television

Laboratory studies have shown the processes of the Model learning and desensitization can be clearly identified. We had already got to know model learning: children see violence on television and imitate it (with the subsequent hockey). Or you can show children in kindergarten films made by other children who were either violent or non-violent with one another. Then the children are given the opportunity to play with each other and with toys. It turns out that whoever sees violence becomes violent himself; The violence seen is imitated, which was evident both in the use of toys and in the children's play with one another and in their interaction with adults.

The desensitization (a method from the Behavior therapy) is well known from animal experiments: If an organism is continuously exposed to a certain stimulus, the reaction to this stimulus decreases more and more. Scientific studies have shown that those who watch violent films over and over again react less strongly to individual scenes of violence in individual films. Constantly watching violence on television makes violent behaviors appear increasingly normal to the viewer. Not only the experience and the physical reactions, but above all the behavior of the people changes accordingly. In short: looking at violence leads to numbness and less indifference to violence.

See also The influence of television on the mental and emotional development of children and adolescents


Under the use of

Grimm, Petra, Kriste, Katja & Weiß, Jutta (2005). Violence between facts and fictions. An examination of depictions of violence on television with special consideration of their degree of reality or fictionality. Berlin: Vistas.

Hartwig, H. (1986). The cruelty of the images. Horror and fascination in old and new media. Weinheim / Berlin: Quadriga.

Rathmayr, B. (1996). The return of violence. Wiesbaden: Source and Meyer.

Spitzer, Manfred (2005). Caution screen!
WWW: http://www.berlinonline.de/berliner-zeitung/archiv/.bin/dump.fcgi/2005/0827/magazin/0002/ (05-09-26)

Stangl, Werner (2001). [stangl] test & experiment / experiment: examples: experiments on aggression.
WWW: https://www.stangl-taller.at/TESTEXPERIMENT/experimentbspaggression.html (05-09-26)

Winterhoff-Spurk, P. (2003). Media psychology. An introduction. Stuttgart: Kohlhammer.

further reading on the subject of "aggressiveness and the influence of the media":

Kunczik, Michael & Zipfel, Astrid (undated). Effects of depictions of violence.
WWW: http://www.medienpaedagogik-online.de/mf/4/00677/ (05-11-21)
Kunczik, Michael (1998). Violence and media. Cologne: Böhlau.
Selg, H. (1997). Violence in the Media - Parents' Ways to Avoid Negative Effects. Childhood and Development, 6, 79-83.

White, R.H. (2000). Violence, media and aggression among students. Goettingen. Hogrefe.

A summary of field studies about Consumption of violence and aggressiveness especially among young people and an extensive list of literature was found on the webpages of the Psychological Institute of the University of Regensburg: http://rpss23.psychologie.uni-regensburg.de/lehre/internetangebote/medien/kummed_653.htm (03-03-11 ) - but these are no longer available.

 



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