The Telly made me do it… Media contributions to development of aggressive behaviour

Kate Hoolu

This item has been dusted down from a previous version written in the 90s, and which never saw daylight. It still seems to still hold water, and a few relevancies have been added or updated. Please feel free to add or detract from it in the Forum section of the site.

The first task, as in a lot of what I write, is define those terms:
"Aggressive: full of anger, hostility; forceful" (Collins English Dictionary 1995)

There is no corollary with violence; also no unit of measure; one can't have 25 feet or 8 tons of aggression.

"Violent: using or marked by physical strength that is harmful; using excessive force" (ibid)

Excessive is often hard to define too- one of the more ridiculously unworkable self-defence laws in the UK is the use of reasonable force to defend oneself. So you can either try to fight off some attacker by a medium-strength punch and take the very real risk that it's not going to work, and that they are not playing by any kind of rules, which is usually the case…. Or you can take the bastard out first hit with maximum prejudice and then later smile sweetly at the cops, flutter an eyelash and use all the submissive little girl body language you can muster, lisping "I didn't know I had it in me" as they sweep up the remains of someone's face from the floor.

Violence is some process operating when a man hits a woman, a woman hits a man, an adult hits a child, police confront demonstrators, neo-Nazis firebomb Jews' houses, soldiers fire guns,etc, ad infinitum, world without end. Violence as verb not noun- it's a process, not an item- things are done violently but violence is not any THING.

Media violence includes cartoons, real film (the news) and fantasy/dramatic. The dialectic nature-nurture debate of psychology asks (briefly- there are plenty of weighty textbooks about this stuff) are effects genetic or from upbringing, conditioning and environment? Nature effects are outside the scope of the article, but may be an article of their own soon. Nurture theorists have a dichotomy between whether violent TV helps provoke violence or people choose violent programmes because they already have violent tendencies (from other environmental causes) The media could influence violent behaviour via causing imitation, by reducing inhibitions, by desensitising, by eroding social-cultural mores or some combination of these.

Anyone who argue simplistically that screen violence directly CAUSES aggression is missing the point, rather it's maybe a contributing factor, especially in impressionable persons without strong moral references; e.g. some children, as early childhood is a very impressionable time. As the Jesuits said "Give us the child until he is 5, and we'll have him for life" (Wilson, 1983, pp123).

Variable reaction demands psychological research; sociology can't explain why individuals react differently in same stimulus-same environment situations (i.e. violent film at the cinema). This empiricism may negate censorship, the British Board of Film Classification (BBFC) Censorship in Britain is the most repressive in the free world, {Observer #2) but still violent crime rises. However a mere 28 films were censored in 1992, 8.8% of the total (and lowest since the BBFC began in 1913) {Observer #2} There are few regulations governing the BBFC. The Obscene Publications Act applies in a few cases, but censors, who are privately chosen, not elected, make cuts by personal judgment, precedent or public opinion/uninformed mob hysteria (delete as you see fit). Despite pre trial tabloid publicity, the video "Child's Play 3" wasn't implicated in court during the trial of the killers of James Bulger, a senior policeman thinking it "unworthy of serious consideration." {Observer #2} Childs Play 3; containing violence involving children (including a virtual script for the killing of Bulger) is not banned; but as result of the Bulger murder case, the BBFC prevented video releases of Reservoir Dogs; showing "conventional" violence among adults, using guns rather than the various weapons with which the child was killed, but no child murder {Times #1} for 2 years; eventually passing it uncut; it seems to have been a convenient scapegoat, and a convenience which guaranteed it would be a hit film when it was eventually released on tape. You can't buy publicity like that. There is a great piece by Uncle Ramsay in his "What I did…" about the Bulger killers, which can be bought elsewhere on this site.

Some videos enter the UK illegally; hence uncertified. Even if detected, the Obscene Publications Squad complain they don't have enough equipment to view confiscations-so items are confiscated WITHOUT viewing; which smacks of '1984'. The boom in satellite broadcasting to the UK and rising camcorder sales makes DIY duplication or original production of violent/pornographic movies easy; giving another uncensored route into circulation. {Guardian #5} The TV companies' 9pm "watershed" became meaningless long ago, with the advent of programmable VCRs- as I have found several times, if you can't programme your video all you need to do is ask a 7-year old boy to set it up.

In the UK in 1995 only 2 Policemen were equipped to investigate violent computer material {Guardian #5}. Access to the Internet in the UK was basically un-policed until much later, and scant information was available on the Internet's contents; rather ironic for the "information superhighway". There is no control of violent computer games, other than a pretty poor voluntary code of age-rating, similar to cinema films, but it is easy for younger people to get hold of a really nasty computer game. Even 'standard' games involve a lot of shooting, and a future article will be about Lara Croft, on computer and in the movies.

The "Bobo Doll" experiments (Bandura et al 1965; from Gross pp 816-7) seemed to demonstrate learned aggression in frighteningly young children with only short exposure to violence; but conditions were artificial; the experiment also doesn't account for innate tendencies. A leading critic; Dr Guy Cumberbatch, Communications Research Director, Aston Univ, says textbooks "mention 30 year old clumsy, lab-based research, which, when controlled for social class, halves any correlation." {Guardian #1}

Cumberbatch was a sociology advisor to Home Office, BBC and Broadcasting Standards Council. In 'Measure of Uncertainty' (1989) a book produced for the latter, Cumberbatch wrote that the 77% of studies which agree media violence caused violence in real life WERE ALL WRONG. {Observer #1}.

Prof Ellen Wartella, Inst of Communications, Univ. of Illinois, said correlations between screen violence and aggression hold even when controlled for age, social class, education, previous aggressive behaviour etc {Guardian #1} But opinions are mixed: Prof Anita Werner, Communications Dept, Oslo Univ, said even small children are "surprisingly good at distinguishing between the TV fantasy world and reality" {Guardian #3}.

Interpretation difficulty is the debate's essence. Could any experiment PROVE conclusively that viewing violence makes people more aggressive? Such an experiment would need strict experimental monitoring from birth for 25 years with total control to filter biological/social variables. Such manipulation is sinister, abhorrent and no longer possible: the British Psychological Society's experimental protocols {BPS 1996} include strict monitoring of consent and prevention of harm. Ethics actually make cohesive research into aggression much harder. Fortunately for Psychologists, research is lucrative; $400 million in grants in the US alone in 1994 {Guardian #4} and probably much more after the 24/7 repeat screening of the Twin Towers jet impacts and subsequent war in Afghanistan.

Remember in examining any research the strong correlations between the stance of the funding body and instances of researchers reaching the most acceptable conclusion to that funding body. Parallel research by financially independent teams often gives opposite results. (Wilson,1983,
pp5) Is objectivity possible? It seems harder than we may think. As Dr Victor Strasburger, Adolescent Medicine Specialist, Univ of New Mexico said "If you're a network executive there's no proof. If you're a scientist there's so much proof there's no point doing any more research" {Guardian #1}. In Britain, media experts claim no evidence for any link; yet Michael Grade (at the time the chief executive of Channel 4) denounces satellite TV for "a succession of violent films" {Guardian #2} but examine C4; a pioneer in screening films previously banned on violence and/or sexual content, such as Clockwork Orange.

There IS a great deal of research; whatever the quality, whatever the warring personalities and ideologies involved. In the USA there are 1000+ studies on juveniles showing overwhelming correlation between violence viewed and behaviour. {Guardian #1} There are contrasting theories on the effects of viewing violence; apart from those above which imply harm or no effect, there is also the cathartic theory that holds that viewing of violence functions as a healthy safety-valve, or purging experience; allowing the release of energies which may OTHERWISE be expressed in an aggressive manner. Freud theorised sublimation; where a socially unacceptable urge is displaced into something socially acceptable; ie sporting rituals. It's a crap theoretical model overall, but sublimation does seem to have some attractive aspects as an explanation. The fast rising aggression in 21st century sport is a topic worthy of separate study.

Whatever the function of video violence, it's unwise to blame technology itself. The Marquis de Sade (1740-1814); Nietsche (1844-1900); Torquemada (1420-1498) and Machiavelli (1469-1527) never saw a video nasty, but came up with some less than cream-puff ideas about how to treat their fellow humans.

Consider this news item: Oswald Sirres was a rich powerful man; his brother Stephen was jealous: and planned to kill Oswald and steal his possessions. He did so, gruesomely dismembering Oswald's body and hiding various pieces in the country. Oswald's wife Ingrid discovered her
husband was dead by stumbling upon his remains while out walking. A gruesome story, on which we may overlay all sorts of motivation templates, and link it to the plot of a Hollywood blockbuster for giving Stephen the idea.

By substituting Osiris, Isis and Set {Shorter, 1937} for Oswald, Ingrid and Stephen we see that the communication of violent stories is nothing new. Ancient history and literature has violence; the Old testaments' carnage outdoes many movies. Churches teem with images of flaying and disembowelment, and techniques of violence unimaginable until Christianity put them into practice. It's myopic to blame 10,000 year-old problems on recent technology.

However, SPEED AND SCOPE OF COMMUNICATION has changed; around 1800 Europe was virtually illiterate, relying on priests to read. Nowadays TV-owning and literacy rates are almost 100%.

So it doesn't have to be video to be "nasty". The medium is indeed NOT the message. By calling the medium ART we imply approval and encouragement; it's foolish not to add the obverse- "not art" is DANGEROUS. Again, subjectivity beckons; who judges? The High-culture vs Low-culture debate has gone on for over 100 years; a murder in Macbeth is functionally the same as a murder in Terminator; whatever the subjective cultural judgments.

Crime stories top TV ratings. Michael Grade (C4) wanted True Crimes and Crimewatch (reconstructing real crimes) banned until research had been done on emotions generated. As C4 doesn't have a successful "reality TV" crime show at that time, this may just have been jealousy.
A survey by US Centre for Media and Public Affairs in 1993 found the three biggest TV networks featured 1,632 crime stories. In 1992 it had been 830. In 1993, one in eight TV news stories was about crime: as opposed to one in 18 in 1992. Coverage of murders increased threefold in the year-though the US murder rate was almost unchanged. Crime level was constant, crime reporting
soared. {Guardian #7} Why?

Because ratings are vital, TV relies on selling advertising space to survive. Advertisers produce attractive material, to tempt. Although sociology-based, advertisers have great understanding of Psychological use of the media, they tend to aim campaigns at separating vulnerable individuals from their money. A good increase in murder and crime stories will sell extra door locks and security lights, if nothing else. Advertising is used by Governments. Saturation coverage of the last Gulf war (and the next one, no doubt: book your advertising space now!) could either be for informing the public; or worldwide advertising campaign to boost post-cold war arms sales. The Cable News Network film of cruise missiles navigating through Baghdad by following street plans coded into their guidance systems was masterful: now bomb your enemy via their postal code! All the CNN film omitted was a Shopping Channel phone number for credit card ordering of the missiles.

There's money in aggression; whether munitions or selling mobile phones by inciting, and then exploiting womens' fears. {Guardian #6} We need to ask whether it's a video nasty, historical film or public service announcement. To ban violent videos (ACTING with tomato sauce for blood) and openly screen war footage (REAL with blood) seems deranged. What media awards will the first film to depict September 11th win? Or will it be allowed to be shown?

Dave Evans tells me of a 1973 school visit to the Imperial War Museum where his class were shown WW2 footage including close-ups of bound, captured Chinese soldiers being individually shot in the head by their Japanese captors. He still remembers it vividly; but who can say whether it has made him more or less violent than would have been otherwise? There is no counterfactual entity that has been through exactly the same as him, minus seeing that one clip of film, with which to compare.

Some conclusions?

  • There isn't yet an answer to whether media violence indirectly causes aggression; or whether aggression in society is merely reflected by the media. It remains in the realms of dogmatic argument.
  • There are multiple correlations; which should be highlighted as cause for concern and areas for further research. Correlation does not imply causation- for example there is a very high correlation between a lighted match and a cigarette, but it does not mean that the cig lights the match.
  • Due to varying personal thresholds at which screen violence has an apparent or suspected effect, it is impossible to legislate against individuals. The goalposts are moving AND invisible until after an individual's aggression manifests.
  • There's a $ multi-billion media industry. Any research which endangered profit (maybe via potential lawsuits for nurture of aggression) would not become public. The public rely on precisely that medium for their "factual" news service.
  • The patriarchal stance of censoring on subjective lines is implicitly faulty. Education is a more constructive method than censorship or prohibition, as has been shown when prohibition of all sorts of stuff, like alcohol in the USA.
  • Media not guilty. Not innocent either.

There are dozens more areas which could be debated: the scope of a short article is not enough! I especially wanted to mention in depth the film Natural Born Killers, Football violence, the media stereotype of a battered wife being a particular class; thus preventing social realisation that domestic violence covers all classes (media here contributing to the survival of domestic violence in certain classes); the TV-reality crossover in "Tough-guy role" actors becoming politicians (Reagan, Eastwood), the use of cine film to re-broadcast the Nuremberg rallies all over Germany in the 1930's, the FBI televised live storming and destruction of the Davidian Cult HQ in Waco, Texas as being an example of deliberate institutionalised aggression as a warning to other cults (the Davidians had not actually broken any US law at that point), the role of aggressive media campaigns for charismatic Christianity in USA and connotations with fundamentalist movements who advocate armed "Christian soldiers", Dr Hunter Thompson's views on the influence of savage satirical cartoons on violence, road rage encouraged by TV car chases, steroid abuse leading to violence (chemical, but via media imagery/pressure to be muscular), denotations vs connotations in the portrayal of violent acts, societal variations in levels of violence (what is "normal level" is geographic, cultural, perceptual), cold war covert aggression methods, the fact that 99.9% of people who start wars are physically weak old men who probably can't get it up anymore, Orson Welles' radio play of "War of the Worlds" which had rural America in chaos and armed panic in 1938, the emergence of "yob culture" (including "Laddettes"- females acting like young drunken obnoxious men, mainly), and why the TV reportage of the Vietnam war actually spawned a peace movement in the USA, when it was designed to incite patriotic fervour.

The violent film "Natural Born Killers" was released in the UK in 1995 and my seeing it lots of times probably prevented the deaths of a number of people (who had pissed me off in profound and enormous ways, and incidentally almost killing me in the process) whether by catharsis, demonstration of unusual moral standards or something else. What I subsequently did was entirely legal and far worse (for them) than death; the film helped. Well, helped me, anyway : )



BPS 1996: The British Psychological Society Code of Conduct, Ethical Principles and Guidelines pp8 section 3.1
Gross, R; Psychology, Hodder & Stoughton 1995
Shorter, A; The Egyptian Gods, Kegan Paul 1937
Wilson, RA; Prometheus Rising, Falcon Press 1983

Newspaper Sources:

Guardian #1 15/5/93 pp27 Joining the dots: beyond the telly watershed. Melanie Phillips
Guardian #2 30/6/94 pp29 Sexpert schmexpert. Michael Morgan
Guardian #3 27/11/94 pp15 No-One for Silje. Sylvi Leander/Lene Skogstrom
Guardian #4 2/6/94 pp47 Mean gene streak. Steven Rose
Guardian #5 29/11/94 pp6 Red light for blue squad. Nick Davies
Guardian #6 26/3/94 pp24 Fear at the flick of a TV switch. Feature, no author.
Observer #1 17/4/94 pp25 Mediocrity's fight against violent truth. Melanie Phillips
Observer #2 3/4/94 pp22 Death of freedom will be the unkindest cut. Phillip French
Times #1 16/8/93 pp33 Censors and sensibilities. Geoff Brown

The BBFC can be contacted at 3 Soho Square, London W1V 5DE