Video Games, Media Violence & the Cathartic Effect Hypothesis

by on May 26, 2010 · 3 comments

David Leonhardt of The New York Times penned an interesting essay a few days ago entitled, “Do Video Games Equal Less Crime?” reflecting upon the same FBI crime data I wrote about earlier this week, which showed rapid drops in violent crime last year (on top of years of steady declines).  Crimes of all sorts plummeted last year despite the serious economic recession we find ourselves in.  Downturns in the economy are typically followed by upticks in crime. Not so this time.  Which leads Leonhardt to wonder if perhaps exposure to violent media (especially violent video games) could have played a positive role in tempering criminal activity in some fashion:

Video games can not only provide hours of entertainment. They can also give people — especially young men, who play more than their fair share of video games and commit more than their fair share of crimes — an outlet for frustration that doesn’t involve actual violence. Video games obviously have many unfortunate side effects. They can promote obsessive, antisocial behavior and can make violent situations seem ordinary. But might video games also have an upside? I’m willing to consider the idea.

Go Back to the Greeks

What Leonhardt is suggesting here goes by the name “cathartic effect hypothesis” and debates have raged over it for centuries.  Seriously, the fight goes all the way back to the great Greek philosophers Plato and Aristotle. And, as with everything else, Aristotle had it right! Well, at least in my opinion he did, but I am a rabid Aristotealian.  While Plato thought the media of his day (poetry, plays & music) had a deleterious impact on culture and humanity, Aristotle took a very different view. Indeed, most historians believe it was Aristotle who first used the term katharsis when discussing the importance of Greek tragedies, which often contained violent overtones and action. He suggested that these tragedies helped the audience, “through pity and fear effecting the proper purgation of these emotions.” (See Part IV of Aristotle’s Poetics,) Aristotle spoke highly of tragedies that used provocative or titillating storytelling to its fullest effect:

Tragedy is an imitation not only of a complete action, but of events inspiring fear or pity. Such an effect is best produced when the events come on us by surprise; and the effect is heightened when, at the same time, they follow as cause and effect. The tragic wonder will then be greater than if they happened of themselves or by accident; for even coincidences are most striking when they have an air of design. We may instance the statue of Mitys at Argos, which fell upon his murderer while he was a spectator at a festival, and killed him. Such events seem not to be due to mere chance. Plots, therefore, constructed on these principles are necessarily the best.

Of “Tragic Wonder” & Balanced Passions

Again, what Aristotle believed was important about such tales was precisely that they help give rise to a heightened sense of “tragic wonder” that helped us purge away or balance out similar passions brewing in the human psyche. [For a broader discussion of the catharsis debate from Plato and Aristotle on down to the modern “media effects” psychologists and social scientists, see Marjorie Heins’s brilliant 2001 book, Not in Front of the Children: ‘Indecency,’ Censorship and the Innocence of Youth, p. 228-253.]

One might just as easily apply this thinking to many of the most popular video games children play today, including those with violent overtones. That’s exactly what Gerald Jones does in his book Killing Monsters: Why Children Need Fantasy, Super Heroes, and Make-Believe Violence:

One of the functions of stories and games is to help children rehearse for what they’ll be in later life. Anthropologists and psychologists who study play, however, have shown that there are many other functions as well—one of which is to enable children to pretend to be just what they know they’ll never be. Exploring, in a safe and controlled context, what is impossible or too dangerous or forbidden to them is a crucial tool in accepting the limits of reality. Playing with rage is a valuable way to reduce its power. Being evil and destructive in imagination is a vital compensation for the wildness we all have to surrender on our way to being good people.

Judge Richard Posner used similar logic when penning the 7th Circuit’s 2001 decision in American Amusement Machine Association v. Kendrick, which struck down an Indianapolis ordinance prohibiting anyone who operated more than five arcade games on their premises from allowing an unaccompanied minor to play games that would be considered “harmful to minors.” In the Kendrick decision, Posner noted that “To shield children right up to the age of 18 from exposure to violent descriptions and images would not only be quixotic, but deforming; it would leave them unequipped to cope with the world as we know it.”

Don’t Be the Boy in the (Intellectual) Bubble

Posner’s opinion for the court was a blistering tour-de-force that included a review of violence in literature throughout history. “Self-defense, protection of others, dread of the ‘undead,’ fighting against overwhelming odds—these are all age-old themes of literature, and ones particularly appealing to the young,” he noted. “To shield children right up to the age of 18 from exposure to violent descriptions and images would not only be quixotic, but deforming; it would leave them unequipped to cope with the world as we know it,” he argued. “People are unlikely to become well-functioning, independent-minded adults and responsible citizens if they are raised in an intellectual bubble.” This is a different sort of construction of cathartic effect hypothesis. In essence, Posner is explaining how exposure to violently-themed media helps to gradually assimilate us into the realities of the world around us.

Such thinking will undoubtedly remain controversial—perhaps even outlandish—to some. But the history of art and entertainment has always been filled with its share of controversies in terms of its impact on culture and society. Indeed, one generation’s trash often becomes a subsequent generation’s treasure. Sculptures, paintings and works of literature widely condemned in one period were often praised—even consider mainstream—in the next.  As The Economist magazine editorialized in the summer of 2005: “Novels were once considered too low-brow for university literature courses, but eventually the disapproving professors retired. Waltz music and dancing were condemned in the 19th century; all that was thought to be ‘intoxicating’ and ‘depraved’, and the music was outlawed in some places. Today it is hard to imagine what the fuss was about. And rock and roll was thought to encourage violence, promiscuity and Satanism; but today even grannies listen buy Coldplay albums.” I’ve written more about such “moral panics” here in the past.

Humans Adapt

Here is the important point: somehow we get through it. We learn to assimilate culture into our lives that previous generations feared or loathed. As the late University of North Carolina journalism professor Margaret A. Blanchard once noted: “[P]arents and grandparents who lead the efforts to cleanse today’s society seem to forget that they survived alleged attacks on their morals by different media when they were children. Each generation’s adults either lose faith in the ability of their young people to do the same or they become convinced that the dangers facing the new generation are much more substantial than the ones they faced as children.” And Thomas Hine, author of The Rise and Fall of the American Teenager, argues that: “We seem to have moved, without skipping a beat, from blaming our parents for the ills of society to blaming our children. We want them to embody virtues we only rarely practice. We want them to eschew habits we’ve never managed to break.”

If you subscribe to the cathartic effect school of thinking, however, you typically do no fear social or technological change as much because you realize that human adapt. We learn to cope with cultural or technological changes, and in many cases we are actually made better off as a species because of those changes.

Can It Be Proven One Way or the Other?

But is there any hard evidence to prove or disprove the cathartic effect hypothesis? The problem is, as I have noted here before repeatedly, we must never forget the first iron law of statistical analysis: Correlation does not necessarily equal causation. Whether we are talking about those artificial lab experiments or the real-world data sets, we cannot lose sight of the fact that just because B follows A it does not mean A caused B. That is particularly the case when it comes to human behavior, which is complex and ever-changing.

That being said, I’ve also suggested that, at some point, a consistent trend in real-world crime data must suggest that at least the opposite is not the case. Thus, when it comes to the supposed relationship between violent media and real-world violence, I have to believe that if there was anything to the thesis that a correlation exists, we would have to see it manifest itself at some point in crime statistics. But we have now experienced roughly 15 years of steady drops in all categories of criminal activity, especially juvenile violence, while at the same time witnessing a fairly steady increase in exposure to video games and violently-theme media in general.

Incidentally, Leonhardt’s New York Times article cites a recent study by Gordon Dahl and Stefano DellaVigna that appeared in the Quarterly Journal of Economics in May 2009 entitled, “Does Movie Violence Increase Violent Crime?” which tried to use some hard data to evaluate the cathartic effect hypothesis. Dahl and DellaVigna found that:

exposure to violent movies has three main effects on violent crime: (i) it significantly reduces violent crime in the evening on the day of exposure; (ii) by an even larger percent, it reduces violent crime during the night hours following exposure; (iii) it has no significant impact in the days and weeks following the exposure.

We interpret the first finding as voluntary incapacitation: potential criminals that choose to attend the movie theater forego other activities that have higher crime rates. As simple as this finding is, it has been neglected in the literature, despite its quantitative importance. We interpret the second finding as substitution away from a night of more volatile activities, in particular, a reduction in alcohol consumption. The third finding implies that the same-day impact on crime is not offset by intertemporal substitution of crime. An important component of these interpretations is the sorting of more violent individuals into violent movie attendance.

These findings appear to contradict evidence from laboratory experiments that document an increase in violent  behavior following exposure to movie violence.

Of course, it’s just one study, so I’m not ready to rest my entire case upon it (or even dozens of other studies like it).  But I do think they’re on to something.

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