The debate about the effects of violent media rages on, and researchers are becoming more creative with ways to test their theories pro or con. New Scientist reports on a recent study that used simulated drama to determine if people exposed to violent media (video games and movies in this case) would be less inclined to help someone in need.
Here’s what the researchers did in the first experiment:
320 students – half men, half women – played either a violent game or a non-violent game. Violent games included Carmageddon, Duke Nukem, and Future Cop. I’ve never heard of any of the non-violent games, but they certainly sounded the part: Glider Pro, 3D Pinball, Austin Powers and Tetra Madness. After playing the game for 20 minutes, students filled out a survey assessing their experience.
Then, while they were completing the survey, the researchers played an audio recording of a loud simulated fight in the hallway. The script of the simulation went like this:
First Actor: “You stole her from me. I’m right and you know it, loser.”
Second Actor: “Loser? If I’m a loser, why am I dating your ex-girlfriend?”
First Actor: “OK, that’s it, I don’t have to put up with this shit any longer.”
A chair-flinging tussle ensues, and Second Actor gets pummelled – “It’s my ankle, you bastard. It’s twisted or something.” And to make the ruse more convincing, the researchers kicked on the door a couple times.
Three minutes after the simulated fight–enough time for anyone to respond to what they were hearing in the hallway–a researcher returned to the testing room and asked if everything was OK. Nearly everyone in the room mentioned the fight, and the researcher then asked the participants if they attempted to help and to rate the seriousness of the fight on a scale of 1 to 10. Here are the findings:
Students who played a violent game took nearly five times longer to help (73 vs 16 seconds), were slightly less likely to mention the mêlée (94 vs 99%), and rated it as less serious (5.9 vs 6.4 out of 10), compared with volunteers who played a non-violent game, the researchers found.
For the movie experiment, the researchers took a different approach. From the New Scientist article:
Participants watched either a fantasy flick staring Jodie Foster, Nim’s Island, or a Ben Stiller-produced horror film called The Ruins.
Either before or after each film, a young woman with a wrapped ankle on crutches drops one of her crutches and struggles to pick it up. A hidden researcher timed how long it took moviegoers to help the woman.
Across 18 trials, people who sat through The Ruins took 26% longer – about five seconds versus seven – than people who watched Nim’s Island. When the woman lost her crutch before the film, all volunteers took about 5.5 seconds to help.
What’s interesting to me about this study is that, despite its creative approach, the results tell a similar story as previous research about the effects of violent media: there’s an effect, but it’s relatively small. Plus, there are a slew of caveats to mention, not the least of which being that this study used exclusively college students, who presumably are exposed to similar enculturating influences and come from similar socioeconomic strata. It would be more telling to run the same study with a random selection of volunteers from both within and outside the college campus. In addition, this study says nothing about media effects on children and shouldn’t be compared to research with that as its focus.
All that said, there still appears to be something there, albeit probably too small a difference to be of any real consequence. Maybe a better question to examine is– how likely are people to respond to someone in need when they are absorbed in any kind of electronic media? As you can see in the results, whether someone is watching a horror movie or a PG fantasy movie, it still takes a few seconds before they get up to help someone clearly in need. Perhaps violent media increases this attention/action gap, but it exists regardless.