Research conducted over the past 30 years leads to the conclusion that televised violence does influence viewers' attitudes, values and behavior (Hearold, 1986; Murray, 2000, 1994, 1973; Paik and Comstock, 1994; Surgeon General's Scientific Advisory Committee on Television and Social Behavior, 1972). Although the social effect of viewing televised violence is a controversial topic of research and discussion, the body of research is extensive and fairly coherent in demonstrating systematic patterns of influence. In general, there seem to be three main classes of effects:
- Aggression. Viewing televised violence can lead to increases in aggressive behavior and/or changes in attitudes and values favoring the use of aggression to solve conflicts (Huston et al., 1992).
- Desensitization. Extensive violence viewing may lead to decreased sensitivity to violence and a greater willingness to tolerate increasing levels of violence in society (Drabman and Thomas, 1974; Thomas et al., 1977).
- Fear. Extensive exposure to television violence may produce the "mean world syndrome," in which viewers overestimate their risk of victimization (Gerbner, 1970; Gerbner et al., 1994).
Although we know that viewing televised violence can lead to increases in aggressive behavior or fearfulness and to changed attitudes and values about the role of violence in society, we need to know more about how these changes occur in viewers—the neurological processes that lead to changes in social behavior.
Within the context of social learning theory, we know that changes in behavior and thoughts can result from observing models in the world around us, such as parents, peers or the mass media. The processes involved in modeling or imitating overt behavior were addressed in social learning theories from the 1960s (Bandura, 1969, 1965, 1962; Berkowitz, 1965, 1962), but we must expand our research approaches if we are to understand the neurological processes that might govern the translation of the observed models into thoughts and actions.
Both Bandura (1994) and Berkowitz (1984) have provided some theoretical foundations for the translation of communication events into thoughts and actions. Bandura's social-cognitive approach and Berkowitz's cognitive-neoassociation analysis posit a role for emotional arousal as an "affective tag" that may facilitate lasting influences. With regard to aggression, we know that viewing televised violence can be emotionally arousing (e.g., Cline et al., 1973; Osborn and Endsley, 1971; Zillmann, 1982, 1971), but we lack direct measures of cortical arousal or neuroanatomical patterns in relation to viewing violence.
The pursuit of neurological patterns in viewing violence would likely start with the amygdala, because it has a well-established role in controlling physiological responses to emotionally arousing or threatening stimuli (Damasio, 1999, 1994; LeDoux, 1996; Ornstein, 1997). Indeed, a National Research Council report (Reiss and Roth, 1993) concluded:
All human behavior, including aggression and violence, is the outcome of complex processes in the brain. Violent behaviors may result from relatively permanent conditions or from temporary states...Biological research on aggressive and violent behavior has given particular attention to functioning of steroid hormones such as testosterone and glucocorticoids, especially their action on steroid receptors in the brain;...neurophysiological (i.e., brain wave) abnormalities, particularly in the temporal lobe of the brain; brain dysfunctions that interfere with language processing or cognition.
Thus, one suggestion for further research on the impact of viewing media violence is to assess some of its neurological correlates. In particular, the use of videotaped violent scenes can serve as the ideal stimulus for assessing activation patterns in response to violence.
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