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Bias in Scientific Research on Violence

by Izzy Kalman (September 2003)

Scientific research is supposed to be objective, but unfortunately this is often a dream. Much research, and certainly that which deals with social issues, has an agenda and is far from objective. A popular field of research for psychologists is violence in entertainment. Most of this research is performed not to determine WHETHER violent entertainment leads to violence in real life. It begins with the assumption that it DOES lead to violence, and then looks for ways to prove it. Even though government statistics show a steady decline in violence in American society from year to year, at a time when violence in entertainment is going UP from year to year, the researchers are out there proving that violent entertainment causes violence in real life. If this were true, the statistics would report INCREASING violence rather than decreasing.

I found a great example of deceptive use of research in the July/August issue of Psychotherapy Networker (an excellent magazine for people in the psychotherapy fields). It has an article named “TV Violence: a Longer Legacy.” Researchers who tracked 329 kids for fifteen years found that those who’d watched the most television violence became the most aggressive 20- year-olds. This is presented as proof that watching the violence MADE them aggressive. However, this shows nothing more than simple correlation: that particularly aggressive people also watched an inordinate amount of violence. It can’t prove that WATCHING the violence MADE them aggressive. People who love to cook are also those most likely to watch lots of cooking shows on television. It doesn’t mean that watching the shows made them cook.

The article says nothing about what happened to those who were more balanced in their television viewing. Were those who watched a moderate amount of violence mildly aggressive? And did those who watched no violence display no aggression in life?

It may, indeed, be true that watching an exorbitant amount of violence on television may encourage aggressive behavior among individuals who have a strong proclivity towards aggression. In fact, I would be surprised if it DIDN’T have such an effect. But if violence in general is going down while violence in the media is going up, there must be some beneficial effect that more than compensates for the increased aggression in some individuals. It is possible that for the great majority of people, viewing a moderate amount of violence on television actually REDUCES their likelihood of becoming aggressive in real life. Perhaps by showing them how horrible violence is, it encourages them to act more peacefully. Think about your own reaction. When you see a violent incident on television, do you think, “I can’t wait to do that, too”? Or do you think, “Oh, my! How horrible it is to hurt people?”

Can you remember the last time you read about researchers exploring the BENEFITS of violent entertainment on society as a whole? Not likely. Because such efforts don’t fit many researchers’ agendas.

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