Study Links Violent Video Games And The 'Macbeth Effect'

from the is-this-a-study-i-see-before-me? dept

Normally when we cover studies (or lack there of) linking violence and video games, it's to show the rather uninformed way pundits and politicians go about pretending there's an established causal link where one has not yet been proven. Whether it's the press taking the low road with sensationalized headlines about Anders Breivik, or politicians attempting to get ever more inflatted warning labels on games, or simple random accusations by judges in the face of evidence to the contrary. The theme in these types of stories is clear and ridiculously simple: if the average person plays violent games, they're going to desensitize that average person and cause them to commit non-average atrocities.

So it's a bit interesting to see a study on violent video games produce some more nuanced results, such as a recent study from the University of Luxembourg that showed what researchers are referring to as “the Macbeth Effect” in the average gamer:

The researchers had 76 people play violent video games for 15 minutes, after which they were told to select gift items for others. Those who were “inexperienced” with violent video games were more likely to select “hygienic products” like shower gel, deodorant, and toothpaste than those who played violent video games on a regular basis

“The need to cleanse to keep moral purity intact, the 'Macbeth effect,' is a psychological phenomenon in which a person attempts to purify oneself in order to cope with feelings of moral distress,” said lead researcher Dr. Andre Melzer. “We find that the Macbeth effect can result from playing violent videogames, especially when the game involves violence against humans.”

The reference is from Shakespear's Macbeth, in which Lady Macbeth obsessively washes her hands after participating in a murder plot. And, yes, I know that some of you will say that this effect primarily showed up in those that were “inexperienced with violent video games”, but that's the whole point. Those that are inexperienced with violent games are so because they aren't the kind of people those games appeal to. The games themselves aren't corrupting the minds of these people, nor are they likely corrupting the minds of those that actually seek them out. There are simply some people who like those kinds of games and some who don't.

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Comments on “Study Links Violent Video Games And The 'Macbeth Effect'”

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That Anonymous Coward (profile) says:

Something I’ve not found was these people they were picking gifts out for… who where they to the participants?
What was the pool of allowed items?

Or do we all think the sudden burst of shower/bath sets for Fathers Day, Mothers Day, and Christmas is just random happen chance. Not the simple truth, when your not sure you go with someone everyone needs. It makes it easy to make a selection without having to bother finding out what the other person might want.

Ooooh hygiene products are impersonal! Quick spin the report to say exposure to violent games makes people more impersonal!

That or stop trying to find an outside source to blame for a single persons actions, trying to find a bigger set of connections to allow your own desire to have control over others blind you to the truth… Humans are flawed creatures. Some more flawed than others, and some will do horrible things.
Upbringing, exposure, etc might have minor effects on them, but it is the human nature to want to blame outside factors that enable them to continue down these paths. It is the blind eye we turn saying boys will be boys, jocks always pick on nerds, etc… that teach them lessons… not being able to steal a virtual car and run over hookers that makes them snap.

Anonymous Coward says:

Re: Re:

It is human nature to assign blame and it is human nature for scientists to search a population for correlations, when psychologists tell you, the reasons are specific to each person. I do not like the idea of population studies in psychology since what is important is the thought-processes of each of the participants and there is no way in h… you can find that out through looking at tabasco sauce strenght and gift-giving.
Everybody lies as some TV-series claims! Mind-reading is still 30+ years away technologically.
Untill they exist, markers in the blood, FMR and some specific psychological analysis can be acceptable scientifically as tertiary markers. Any shortcuts for the acceptable analysies are 4th hand markers and therefore by nature almost universally unreliable if any of the 3 correlations requires break down…

Anonymous Coward says:

Re: Re:

I might have missed something but it shouldn’t matter who were the recipients relating to the gift givers.

All that matters is the difference in gift choice between those accustomed to violent games and those not. It is assumed that the relationship between recipient and giver was the same for both groups, therefore any difference in gift choice between both groups was due to their familiarity with violent games and nothing else.

Unless you suspect the researchers of manipulating the study in order to get specific results – in that case, yes it is important to make sure both groups were identical except for their familiarity with violent games.

That Anonymous Coward (profile) says:

Re: Re: Re:

A random stranger that you pull out of a hat at a “Secret Santa” exchange will lead you to purchase a generic gift.
Like bath products, its a utilitarian gift everyone needs.

Someone that you have known for years, might lead to a different gift choice, that might fulfill a desire you only know of because of the prior relationship.

Not having seen the report, we have no idea about what methodology was used and what limitations might have been imposed.

Suggesting that people who claim to have little experience with violent video games, because as has been pointed out people lie, feel a deep seated desire to cleanse themselves because they picked a bar of soap off of a list of 3 choices is lacking on a few levels.

Anonymous Coward says:

“The need to cleanse to keep moral purity intact, the ‘Macbeth effect,’ is a psychological phenomenon in which a person attempts to purify oneself in order to cope with feelings of moral distress,” said lead researcher Dr. Andre Melzer

But didn’t they say they were getting others a gift, not themselves? How does that even apply? Maybe those that had never played games, were simply a different category of buyer. I would expect gamers to gift much cooler gifts then non-gamers. Wouldn’t that factor be much more important?

Anonymous Coward says:

Re: Re:

That is indeed a very valid point.

I have a psychology degree and let me tell you, I see these kinds of hasty or false conclusions all the time in research papers. It’s baffling, but science is losing it’s integrity these days (fabricated data is on the rise, peer reviewed journals care more about money and less about the advancement of science, etc.)

I’m not saying it’s the case here though; all I’m saying is it’s possible and it wouldn’t be surprising if it were.

A few things in support of the research:
– I didn’t read the original publication and the source provided by Techdirt is an article about the original article. It’s second hand info and not held up to scientific standards.
Therefore, it’s entirely possible that the original study was made in several parts, and one of these parts was actually about subjects buying gifts for themselves, yet the article linked to by Techdirt didn’t mention it for whatever reasons. It happens often that popular media articles do not describe the complete scientific article they are discussing.

– It’s also possible that the researchers thought that if subjects were asked to buy items for themselves, they wouldn’t buy things they already had, such as shower gel (who goes for long periods of time without that?). Therefore it could have made sense for the scientists to make subjects buy gifts for people they didn’t know.
That does not refute your criticism though, it only explains how the researcher’s thoughts had run.
Ideally, the research should have looked at increase hygienic behavior from the subjects; for example
see if they washed their hands or showered more frequently after playing. This might be practically harder to study though.

There’s another criticism that can be made: only violent games were tested. How do we know it’s only violent games that cause this McBeth effect? As far as we know it could be all video games that cause this!

Pretty sure if I looked at the original paper I’d find more flaws.

Tim Griffiths (profile) says:

Sadly people will use this to argue for these games are desensitising the people who play rather than what you suggest . And it will be as a valid argument as your own. Again this is only showing a correlation between the people who play games and the showing of less guilt, there is no clear understanding of the causation.

Anything else I have to say about violence in media in the wake of the awful things that have happened is better summed up by this video.

Anonymous Coward says:

Re: Re:

But violent media does desensitize people who consume it.
The ridiculous claim is that violent media can actively make people violent.

Desensitization works like this:
We have psychological barriers when it comes to harming other people. Violence is just shocking to us, and thus hard to commit.
On top of that, we have moral barriers: most of us believe it’s wrong to harm others and thus we do not do it.

Now violent media weakens those barriers:
By becoming familiar with scenes of violence and gore, we are less shocked by violence and thus, if we wanted to hurt somebody for any reason, we might be less hesitant to do it.
To be clear: Violent media would not make us WANT to hurt people, but it would make us less likely to resist those urges should we have them.

As for the moral barriers: media can teach us that sometimes violence is justified. The media doesn’t have to be violent to teach us that, but usually it is.
As an example, think of CSI: Miami and how Horatio Caine, the main police guy, regularly takes justice into his own hands and beats up a pedophile, a cop killer and on another occasion let another pedophile die when he could have saved him. The message sent by the media is clear: the worst criminals deserve to be beaten/die.
Now imagine Average Joe is watching this show. He believes killing is always wrong, that justice is up to courts and not members of the public, etc. he might even be religious.
He watches the show and he’s basically told “hey, society actually approves of killing pedophiles you know?”. His moral barriers weaken a little. After repeated exposure to such messages, his moral barriers weaken very much and he starts to wish death and child molesters.
Now that won’t make Average Joe go out to hunt and kill pedophiles. But if something happens in his life that makes him want to kill pedophiles (maybe one day his nephew is abducted by a pedophile), then Average Joe will no longer think “killing is wrong, even in the case of pedophiles”: his moral barrier will no longer be there.

So now you have Average Joe in the following state of mind:
– He has a reason to go out and kill people.
– He doesn’t think it’s wrong/immoral/disapproved of by society.
– He’s so desensitized to violence, he has no trouble shooting somebody in the head, stabbing him or bashing his skull with a hammer.
What’s stopping him? Maybe the law, but if he’s angry, depressed or in some other “I don’t care anymore” state of mind, it won’t stop him.

Now for this example we’ve been using people who kill child molesters, but it could be anyone or any reason that motivates a killer. The Aurora and Sikh Temple shooters both had reasons to shoot the people they killed.
So the motives of killers and violent people may vary, but what’s common to all cases is the fact that they aren’t sensitive to violence anymore, whether it’s psychologically or morally. These barriers that prevent us from slaughtering each other just because we can no longer exist in these people’s minds (or have been seriously weakened).

As a final note, it should be considered that media isn’t the only thing that can weaken our barriers. Morticians, coroners, surgeons and others who are regularly exposed to serious injuries likely become desensitized about violence over time. Of course just because they aren’t shocked by serious injuries or aren’t squeamish about using a knife on a human body doesn’t mean they’ll go out and kill people.
Police officers, who both experience violence and are expected to commit violence (such as shooting people in self-defense) can be desensitized both psychologically and morally (this can explain many cases of police brutality).
Boxers probably wouldn’t be squeamish about getting in a fight but they might have moral issues about it.
The list goes on…

In summary:
– Media makes us less likely to refuse to commit violence.
– Media will not give us killing urges, but it can make us less likely to resist those urges if we have them.
– It’s not just media that can do this – our job, sport or other things can do it.

Anonymous Coward says:

Re: Re: Re:

And I forgot:
Mental disorders can make us desensitized to violence too, of course. Not to mention disorders that can make people violent without them realizing it (schizophrenia and other schizoid type disorders. Note that not all sufferers are violent, most aren’t!)

Some disorders, like depression, can also make it easier for us to be desensitized to violence – it doesn’t desensitize you, but if you watch violent media you can be desensitized quicker.

Anonymous Coward says:

I think they should get 100 people and put them in a room. Then we get all the top “MPAA,RIAA,ect” top players and put them in a pit.

In the middle of this pit we can put 1$ and watch them fight for it to the death.

Once we finish this we can let the 100 observers have a option to “buy a movie or pirate it”

What will this prove? Absolutely nothing but it will be a blast to watch fight to the death over a dollar.

Curmudgeon says:

Unstudied Variable?

Isn’t it also possible that the driving variable is that people who *are not* “inexperienced with video games” under-value those products? In other words:

Hypothesis One: Violent games compel inexperienced players to feel the need to cleanse themselves.

Hypothesis Two: Gamers tend not to appreciate hygiene.

I can tell you which one seems likelier to me, and which seems likelier to get headlines, and grant funding.

Anonymous Coward says:

The Abstract: (Source:

“The ?Macbeth effect? denotes the phenomenon that people wish to cleanse themselves physically when their moral self has been threatened. In this article we argue that such a threat to one’s moral self may also result from playing a violent video game, especially when the game involves violence against humans. The cleansing effect should be particularly strong among inexperienced players who do not play video games on a regular basis, because frequent players may apply other strategies to alleviate any moral concerns. Seventy students played one of two violent video games and were then asked to select 4 out of 10 gift products, half of which were hygiene products. Inexperienced players reported more moral distress when the game involved violence against humans (compared to violence against objects), and selected more hygiene products in this condition than frequent video game players. Frequent players, on the other hand, reported less moral distress, irrespective of the game they played.”

In short, they’ve proven that violent video games can cause moral distress in inexperienced gamers. The inclusion of the Macbeth Effect is just sensationalism, considering the point of the Effect is that it indicates moral distress.

This shouldn’t come as any surprise. It is perfectly natural for the average non-gamer to recoil at the spectacle of, say, God of War.

This study would only have been notable if there were a disparity between reported moral distress and selection of hygenic products (i.e. people reported little to no moral distress, but still selected more hygenic products.)

Jim B. says:

How's the different than...

How’s this different than viewing news footage (from news agencies big and small) of murders, of school shootings, of car jackings, of rape, of government sanctioned torture?

How does it not apply to the CSI modeled TV shows where they show bodies in every state of autopsy?

How is it different? Do they not report this violence where anyone reading a newspaper or watching TV news doesn’t experience the same thing?

Desensitizing is desensitizing.

If it applies to video games it applies to the news. At least with video games the players know they are beating and destroying fake characters?

Coyote (profile) says:

I never understand the reasoning. No really, I don’t. There’s no correlation between gift-giving and video games. There’s no correlation between putting people inside of a room, play a few violent video games, then buy hygiene products.

Here’s an idea; we take 100 participants; split them up in four groups of 25 each; first, we have the control group, they don’t play violent video games. Instead, let’s say they sit around, talk with one another over stuff, blahblahblah, no smart-phones either.

the other three groups, we split into ‘Violent video games’, ‘simulation video games’, and ‘strategical video games.’ Let’s say the first group plays stuff like DayZ, Call of Duty 4 [none of the Black Ops stuff because that’s about as truly ‘violent’ as hugging a teddy bear.], Spec Ops: The Line, stuff like that.

We then have the simulation group play stuff like Harvest Moon, Animal Crossing, et all, really calm titles.

The third group plays stuff like Civilzation, Master of the Arcane, FF tactics, blahblah.

We tell them they can play it for as long as they enjoy it, though not exceeding, let’s say four hours. First, we test the control group; have them come out and pick up presents or gifts for friends and family. Then the simulation group; then the violent group; then the strategical group, based on how long they’ll likely keep playing.

What do I hypothesise will happen?

There will be no correlation between hygiene products and violent video games, because the Macbeth Effect only works on people who were paranoid to begin with. If you’re already paranoid, yeah you are going to suffer that effect.

It’s essentially the Thompson effect, wherein a person or a group of people crowd around in a room trying to find out how to correlate things with violent video games, trying to come up with something they can blame other than themselves or the person, whose mental state was not the best to begin with.

If you can’t distinquish between reality and video games, you were already off the deep end to begin with, and therefore, there can BE no correlation, because the previous mental illness suggests you were that way before playing video games. Surprising find, isn’t it? Anyone with common sense knows this is already true, but everyone else wants to pretend violent video games cause stuff, even though in reality, people are just really messed up in the head.

If I wanted to blame anything, it’d be the prevalence of the media, in which their jobs are now to overblow anything in order to get ratings and views from a broken and old system. Because correlating violent video games with no penance for any sort of violence or some sort of effect only ever experienced by those inexperienced with playing games or those with some sort of paranoia doesn’t make a good story or headline.

steig says:


Lady MacBeth = gamer
Murder = killing pixelated characters
Handwashing = choosing soap

The author drew a trivial conclusion (some people like games, some don’t.)

More interesting is that inexperienced gamers would respond to simulated death the same way they might to the real thing.

Why do some people compartmentalize game-violence while others like myself (nightmares) are bothered by it?

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