Media Violence and Desensitization Part 2: A Case Study in How News Media Can Get It Wrong

Recently I discussed the common belief that media violence desensitizes viewers to violence and suffering in the real world. As I noted, increasing evidence suggests that this kind of desensitization does not, in fact, happen...at least not the way people often think. Further, there are sound theoretical reasons why fictional media should not desensitize us to real-life suffering. Namely, evidence suggests our brains treat fictional stories and real-life exposure to things differently, and it's uncommon to see learning occur in one context (relaxing at home with friends and family consuming media) generalize easily to other contexts (potentially hostile situations in the real world.)

Soon after this blog was posted I was contacted by another scholar, Matthew Grizzard at SUNY-Buffalo. In a bit of synchronicity, Dr. Grizzard had recently published an article on desensitization and it was getting a little news coverage just as my blog was released. Dr. Grizzard expressed concerns that news media were misrepresenting the meaning of his article. Let's have a look at Dr. Grizzard's study and what happened with it.

A couple of years back, Dr. Grizzard published a different study suggesting that playing violent action games could actually lead players to consider moral issues more deeply. Rather than violent games creating antisocial monsters, being exposed to dubious moral situations in games seemed to relate to greater moral reflection.

In his new study, Dr. Grizzard wanted to examine how this effect played out over longer periods of time. He and his colleagues had students play the same action game over the course of four days, sometimes as a moral good-guy, sometimes as an immoral bad-guy. On the fifth day they had participants play a different video game, this time also as an immoral bad guy. They found that repetitively playing as an immoral character in an action game led to a reduction in the moral reflection response seen in Dr. Grizzard's earlier paper. In other words, the more you play a game, the less you worry about the morality of the game. Even picking up a new, but similar game, you might reflect on morality less than if you were tossed into immoral actions in games for the first time ever.

So these findings are pretty straightforward. The more you are exposed to the same thing over and over, the less emotional response it evokes over time. This is how desensitization really works. It's context specific. Playing action games desensitizes you to other action games. What does this mean for real-world emotional callousness to suffering of others? Well as Grizzard and colleagues expressed in the original manuscript "...it is important to note that there is no evidence of video game-induced desensitization generalizing to real-world behaviors."

Despite this important warning, some of the news articles that picked up this study inferred exactly what Grizzard and colleagues told them not to...that this study could indicate playing action games desensitizes people to real-life violence. One article headlined "Violent Video Games Can Trigger Emotional Desensitization" and continued "repeated play of violent video games desensitizes gamers to feeling of guilt." But...this was not what Dr. Grizzard and colleagues found. The article invites readers to infer that these effects generalize to real-life guilt and decreased emotional responses. As Dr. Grizzard expressed to me in an email conversation "We claimed in the study that video games lose their ability to elicit guilt with repeated play; a lot of news outlets (not all, but a fair number) are claiming that gamers...lose their ability to feel guilt with repeated play. These are different claims, and while I would argue that our data support our claim, our data do not even address the second claim (i.e., whether gamers lose their ability to feel guilt)."

Why do news media mangle these issues in sensationalist ways? For one thing, I suspect they didn't bother to read the actual article. But again, I also think it does harken to the emotionally-laden yet nebulous way desensitization is used and misused in the general public (and, unfortunately, among many scholars.) Dr. Grizzard expressed to me "I think one reason this interpretation is so 'obvious' may be due to implicit and explicit biases against video gaming and violent media entertainment in general." I agree with this assessment. It seems some people are so eager to find any information to make video games, or violent movies look bad, they're willing to try to jam square pieces of data through round theoretical holes.

Also, as I noted in my previous blog post, I think scholars have failed to adequately communicate what desensitization is, leading people to believe it is an entirely negative process. But in reality, emotional desensitization is typically normal and even adaptive. As Dr. Grizzard told me "research in cognitive psychology suggests that emotions can cloud our rational judgment processes (e.g., this is why people are more afraid of sharks than getting diabetes; by the way, since 1958 there been around 1,100 shark attacks in the US and there are around 21 million people in the US today who have been diagnosed with diabetes), so being more in control of our emotions through desensitization processes might allow us to make better decisions and respond more rationally." Thus, even if media violence really did result in emotional desensitization to real-life suffering (which, as I've noted, the research evidence does not support), this doesn't mean we'd become more violent, or help others less. Simply using rational cognitive responses rather than emotional ones, we may be more helpful rather than less. Assuming otherwise, particularly in the absence of data is problematic.

Ultimately, while it's clear that news media often leap to faulty assumptions, I'm reluctant to let scholars entirely off the hook. One need look no further than the awful, misleading press release for the American Psychological Association's dead-on-arrival task force report on video game violence for an example of how not to do a responsible press release. The APA misinformed rather than informed the public with that release. But Dr. Grizzard deserves great credit for taking steps to correct the record for his own study. If only more scholars did the same.