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What Violence Researchers Should Really be Studying

Updated: Jun 7, 2023

by Izzy Kalman (February 2004)

In 1938, thousands of panic-stricken US citizens fled their homes for the safety of the wide open spaces. What were they running from? Martians! Why? Because they heard Orson Welles’ radio production of H.G. Wells’ “The War of the Worlds.” The program sounded just like a real news broadcast, so listeners who tuned in after the introduction thought the Earth was really being invaded and headed for the hills.

Why do I mention this? Because armies of social scientists are wasting time and money (tax-payer grants) devising experiments they hope will prove that violence in entertainment breeds violence in real life. This research is taking place in an era in which graphic violence in entertainment is at an all time high, yet violence in real life is at an all-time low. If violent entertainment really produced violent people, the violence statistics should be higher than ever, not lower. When research contradicts reality, the research is probably wrong, not reality.

Many social scientists claim that kids should not view violent entertainment because they can’t differentiate fantasy from reality. However, this is true only for very young kids. Research shows that by the age of five, children differentiate between real violence and entertainment violence, and between the news and entertainment. The people who seem to have the most difficulty distinguishing fantasy from reality are the researchers themselves; as proof of our violent society, they often cite the abundance of make-believe murders depicted in entertainment!

We should not be too worried that kids below the age of five may not be able to distinguish violent entertainment from violent news items. When was the last time you heard of a murder committed by a four- year-old.?

But there is an infinitely more powerful motivator than entertainment. That motivator is REAL LIFE AUTHORITY. The Orson Welles radio broadcast of the H.G. Wells science fiction novel, War of the Worlds, in 1938 resulted in Americans fleeing their homes ibecause they thought they were listening to an authoritative news program. Do you know of anyone running for their lives because they thought the alien invasion in the movie Independence Day was real? But if you see George Bush on TV telling us to run for the hills because of an alien invasion, you better hope you can run faster than me!

The truth is that we are in great danger from violence, but the villain is not entertainment.

The Danger is Real-Life Authority

A few decades ago, psychologists like Stanley Milgram and Philip Zimbardo performed experiments on obedience to authority, using intelligent college students (who were pre-screened to make sure they didn’t have any serious emotional problems) as subjects. These scientists were motivated by the desire to understand mind-boggling events like the Holocaust, in which educated, cultured people were persuaded by their leaders to commit the most horrendous actions against helpless, fellow human beings. The scientists themselves were astounded by their results. Milgram found that many of the college students were willing, at the command of the experimenter, to administer what they believed were lethal electric shocks to another person! Zimbardo set up a mock prison with some students assigned roles of prisoners and some as guards. Zimbardo abandoned the experiment prematurely because the “guards” became incredibly cruel to the “prisoners”! Yes, the real danger to us is the words of real-life authority, not make-believe entertainment.

Universities no longer sponsor such experiments because they are considered unethical. However, the results need not be forgotten, and all we have to do is read the newspapers or watch the news to see this principal in action. When recognized authority figures give instructions, many people believe and obey.

If you are a violence researcher and are truly concerned about protecting our children (and the rest of us), here is a suggestion. Forget about those ridiculous efforts trying to prove that entertainment causes violence. Instead, learn from September 11. That infamous day taught us that the real danger to civilization is not weapons of mass destruction. The real danger is A HATE-FILLED MIND. All it takes is someone motivated by hatred to turn ordinary objects to into agents of immense destruction. Where did the 9-11 killers get their hatred? From their governments, schools, and religious institutions that officially teach hatred, particularly of Americans and more particularly of Jews.

And it’s not only our perceived enemies that are motivated by their authority figures. Why do thousands upon thousands of people in our own country willingly put on uniforms, take up arms and destroy masses of people in other countries? It’s because our leaders tell them to do it. And the motives of the leaders aren’t always saintly. But a large portion of the populace blindly believes that their leaders must be right, so they are willing to go kill on their command.

Researchers, if you are truly interested in promoting a less violent world, forget about conducting experiments on violent entertainment. Go back to studying the effects of real-life leaders on the minds of followers.

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