Do Violent Media Make Viewers 'Comfortably Numb'?

from the and-if-so,-does-it-matter dept

A few people have been sending in the news of a recently published study from two professors who have a long history of publishing anti-video game research. The study looked at how people reacted to staged violence after playing violent and non-violent video games — and the “headline” version of the results of the study is that violent media makes viewers “comfortably numb” to the pain of others. That’s the story being pitched by the professor. Basically, the story is that those who watched violent movies or played violent video games responded to the staged violence slower than those that interacted with non-violent media.

Except… the more you think about it and the more you look at the details the less this seems interesting. The speed with which people respond to a staged violent incident (and for the first part of the video game trials, the researchers admit that many subjects admitted they didn’t believe the staged fight seemed real, so they had to make it seem “more real”) isn’t indicative of very much at all. It certainly says nothing about how long that slowness to respond will last, or if there’s any real impact to it. The “violence” people had to respond to hardly seemed particularly critical for fast response time (someone twisted an ankle after a fight about a girl or boy that someone liked). Furthermore, left out of the press release version is the fact that very few of either group of video game players actually helped. 21% of the violent video game players got up to help, but only 25% of the non-violent video game players got up to help.

There was a second experiment as well, that involved participants watching a violent movie — and, as they walked out, witnessing a woman with her foot and ankle wrapped up drop a pair of crutches, and “struggle” to pick them up. The researchers tout that people who had just watched a violent movie were slower to react and help, but the numbers aren’t exactly staggering. Those who had watched a non-violent movie helped in an average of 5.46 seconds. Those who had watched a violent movie helped in an average of 6.89 seconds. Damn slackers. Yes, the vast difference is less than a second and a half… though, the researchers are quick to play up a 26% longer time to help.

While this study makes for a great headline for the anti-violent movie and video game crowd, the details suggest much ado about nothing.

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Comments on “Do Violent Media Make Viewers 'Comfortably Numb'?”

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PRMan (profile) says:


I would have to say that in my own experience there is a correlation between people that like horror movies and those that seem to care little about others.

The question is whether they like the horror movies BECAUSE they care little about others, or whether the movies make them increasingly uncaring about others, and by how much.

To say it has zero impact would be the same as saying that an inspirational movie doesn’t inspire anybody, which is ludicrous.

Grammar Field Marshall says:

Not so dumb, but still comfortable.

(Polishes 5-star grammar cluster on shoulderboards)
Actually, media is the plural of medium, so the use of “Do” in this case is correct. If it were a question of a single medium, then it would require the use of “Does”, but this is not the case in this instance.

Is this an interesting datum point? No, it isn’t. Is it a chance to act elitist? Yes, it is.

Got a B in English says:

Re: Not so dumb, but still comfortable.

Mr. Marshall,
Given your explanation, violent media is referring to a (singular) medium so examples would be “CNN shoots man in face” or “Television set kidnaps adorable puppy”…
But the article is referring to multiple violent games and movies n’ stuff… So “Does” is correct, is it not?

“Me fail english. That’s unpossible!” ~Ralphie

silentsteel (profile) says:

Not seeing a test of true correlation

As someone who was in the military, I have to say that this is not the best way to truly gauge whether violent video games and movies make one numb to real violence. From personal experience, the number of soldiers and marines that are reluctant to sight in on another human being is about where it was during Viet Nam. The line may be finer with the SFX that are in use now, but when another human’s life is actually in the balance, that line still appears to be a mile wide.

R. Miles says:

This study is WAY off.

those who watched violent movies or played violent video games responded to the staged violence slower than those that interacted with non-violent media.
I would like to see the percentages of people who don’t watch anything. Given the world today, a person is less likely to help than before, violence included or not.

I would like to point out to these idiots who research the data in that many people who watch violence and/or play violent video games still represents a significantly small percentage of those who actually do commit violent acts.

How can any damn researcher ignore this fact? What next, sex increases because people just watched a show featuring two couples in bed? Or how about the increase in beer consumption based on those just watching an ad?

Researchers who study violence are completely ignoring the base of such studies, and by doing this, instantly invalidate their work.

I just wonder if our tax money funded this bullshit report.

ceilican1 says:

Seems to me...

the more significant (and accurate) measure the study yields is what percentage of people helped at all. If what Mike said is accurate (I haven’t read the link yet), it shows a statistically insignificant (once you factor the gargantuan margin of error) difference between the percentage of violent and non-violent video-gamers who helped. Of course, the marginal difference was not enouigh for the testers to define conclusive, so it seems to me they probably swapped methodologies on the fly to focus on the most statistically significant difference they could find (reaction time).

If they’re so hellbent on painting gamers in a negative light, a more valuable study might be to measure the percentage of people who actually help between people in the same age groups who do and do not play video games at all. But, I’m going to bet even money that yields statisically insignificant variance as well. All in all, another waste of effort and time, and another blank for the anti-gaming legislators to put in their guns: all bang, no bullet.

Nathania (profile) says:

The violent movie may make people less trusting of others. Or depending on the degree of violence, it may leave people a little shell-shocked.

And it does depend on the nature of the non-violent movie. Was it inspirational? Was it funny? Would an inspirational story cause people to help quicker than a crude comedy?

This “study” is a sham.

Anonymous Coward says:

Re: Re:

There’s even causal differences with the type of violent video game played.

If I’ve just spent 2 hours playing a deathmatch, where everything that moves is a target, I’m not going to be very trusting or helpful. Quick to react, maybe, but that’s it. But if I’ve just spent 2 hours playing on a team against Gears of War 2’s horde, the necessity of teamwork during that time will make me (comparatively) more trusting and helpful.

12o says:

I once witnessed a terrible accident in which a man was thrown clear from a vehicle. A doctor who also witnessed the accident ran over to help. Another witness was the second to reach the victim, and when the doctor asked for his help the man froze when he saw the blood and carnage (it was pretty bad.. I have no idea if the guy even made it).

Admittedly, I also locked up (I was 15 at the time) and wasn’t any use to anyone. But there were several other people that were more than happy to help and who also got to the victim before me.

I watch violent videos all of the time, play violent video games, and see bloody movies. It doesn’t mean I’m going out to kill anyone. But I will say that I’m less apt to throw up or freeze when someone is in trouble. I don’t necessarily *want* to see the carnage, but I don’t want to lock up when someone needs my help, either.

Grammah Police says:

The narrative describes a concept taking place on the mediums, not the mediums themselves, and this may be where word usage can cause some confusion.

The story discusses a “Concept being conveyed on a particular medium” (Publishing/writing) and not “the act of production itself” (Drafting, Editing, Proofing, Printing, pressing) the usage of “Media” seems ill-used.

I’ve never heard of a violent zombie newspaper, that eats brains. But Maybe there are some out there.

Dave says:

PRMan is right

You have to take into account a lot more than the fact that people just watched a violent movie.

First you need a commonality for the group you are studying. i.e. People of the same age, gender, race, geographic location, employment status, criminal record, etc.

Then you split the group into two sets, the control group and experimental group. You introduce a specific violent film to the experimental group, and a specific non-violent film to the control group.

Then you have to hope that your group doesn’t figure out what they are being studied, or that can affect your results. After you’re all done with the research, people can take the statistical results and try to infer things from it.

Even then you can get false positives! Did the violent movie viewers fail to help because they were “comfortably numb” or because they were afraid for their own safety after watching a scary movie?

Dave says:


Also, the #1 test for a psychological study is whether the results come up the same when the study is done again by OTHER psychologists, and a completely different group of test subjects.

Basically you have your first group A, then you split A into A1 and A2. You introduce B, and study A1B and A2B.

Then you come up with another group C, and process through to get C1B and C2B.

C1B and C2B should be about the same as A1B and A2B or else the deciding factor in the study wasn’t B, it was A, or something else.

Repeat and repeat and repeat, and the more times the study is repeated, the more credible it is.

You can’t take one set of 320 and 162 people and accurately assess the behavior of 300 million people from it.

Grammah Police says:

The other problem is that there’s two nouns being used in a plural sense in the title, and it lacks a defined verb.

It’s akin to “Do Google make users ‘hungry'”?

Now, in this real bad, yet valid example, where ‘comfortably numb’, is originally being used as an adverb. So to make it less complex, it’s replaced with a vanilla adjective.

The problem, again, is the word “Google”, which can be used as a noun, adjective, proper noun, or a verb. Understanding these transitive qualities of the word, it should fit perfectly in this example- much like the word “Media” should fit perfectly. Both words are too general and have multiple transitive qualities which are not determined in it’s context. So either sentence structure is unable to highlight correct usage (via context), or more easily, the word DO needs should be changed tense to properly identify the correct transitive usage of “Media”.

You know this is right, Mike. You stubborn person, you.

In fact, many fixed it:

numb and number says:

Bad science? but true

Hey, as a fan of violent movies and games and as a father of 3 I have to say, yes, from my own anecdotal experiences with me, my kids, my nieces and nephews, their friends, etc., there IS a direct correlation. But, that is my own experience, and not scientific. I happen to agree with the sentiment of the report, but I’m not sure the science was good enough to prove anything. Back to the drawing boards guys.

Frosty840 says:

Ooh, hey, look, another Anderson/Bushman pile-o’-bullshit study!

Seriously, any research into the topic will reveal quite a pile of research damning videogames. Actually paying attention during this research will prompt you to notice that either Anderson or Bushman are involved in pretty much every “videogames are bad” study published in the last twenty years.

Slight academic bias there, maybe?

Gene Cavanaugh (profile) says:

Violent Video Games

Okay, Michael, I am beginning to agree with you. I know for a fact that the bullying I was subjected to in high school (and the subsequent violence I inflicted on the bullies after I “fleshed out” in the military) desensitized me to the pain they felt when I caught them.
I think such desensitization is merely part of life, whether from a video game or otherwise – and now that I have it out of my system, I am totally non-violent, so such lack of feeling is more a phase than a change in character.
Of course, that is pure inductive reasoning, and so invalid, but I suspect a deductive study would give the same results.

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