Lately, there is a growing conception that violence in the media determines aggressive behaviour, mainly in children and young adults, due to automatic behaviour. In this paper, I will argue that media violence is not the main predictor of aggressive behaviour. On the contrary, this type of behaviour manifests itself scarcely in relation to media violence and consequent violent behaviour, while other factors are more accountable for young people behaving aggressively. The question that I will try to answer in this paper is: In relation to what can automatic behaviour be perceived as a strong theory? The paper consists of four parts, aimed at answering the above question. The first part explains what automatic behaviour is, and presents the arguments found in the literature for supporting a theory of enhanced aggressiveness and exposure to violent media. The second part exposes the limitations in media violence literature, and presents arguments for why these studies are not reliable. The third part presents other sociological arguments, in order to create a thorough picture of the most likely predictors of aggressive behaviour, that should be taken into account when matters of causality are discussed. The fourth part proposes an alternative approach to the problem, focusing on research findings, and network theory. The conclusions refer to ideas for further research.
I. Automatic behaviour and other relevant concepts
In this part of the paper, I define the main concepts on which some authors base their claims that media violence increases aggressiveness. My aim is to identify the core arguments in order to be able to develop counter-arguments to the above mentioned claim, that media violence is associated with aggressive behaviour. I do not argue that media does not have an effect of shaping public opinion, because I believe it does, but more powerful influences come from the social constructions that media generate, not from the acts of violence they show.
In one of their papers, Bargh and Chartrand (2001) argue that there are two main types of mental processes: conscious and unconscious, or controlled and automatic. The conscious or controlled processes are defined as being “mental acts of which we are aware, that we intend (i.e., that we start by an act of will), that require effort, and that we can control (i.e., we can stop them and go on to something else if we choose; Logan & Cowan, 1984)” (Bargh and Chatrand 2001, p. 463). Conversely, the nonconscious/automatic processes are unintended, efortless, very fast, and many of them can operate at any given time. Some of them are “natural” and do not require experience to develop. Others develop from repeated and consistent experience (Bargh and Chatrand 2001). For the purpose of this paper, I will mainly try to distinguish between the two types of automatic behaviour - natural and learned. Why is it important to make a difference between them? Because, as I will present below, natural behaviour is triggered by different processes and factors than the learned one. The discussion on media violence and automatic behaviour will further develop this claim.
Automatic behaviour is related to media violence through imitation. Another relevant concept for this paper is the perception-behaviour link, developed by the same two authors (1999). This concept is related to what Berkowitz called the ideomotor action to explain how violence in the media increases the probability of aggression in the one exposed to it. The authors paraphrase Berkowitz: “He argues that activation spread automatically in memory from representations of the violent acts to other aggressive ideas of the viewer. This spreading activation to aggressive behavioural representations, he asserted, automatically led the viewer to behave in a more aggressive manner” (Bargh and Chartrand 1999, pp. 893- 894). In line with this, the perception-behaviour link is the mechanism behind the often observed behaviour of mimicry and consequent empathic understanding within social interactions. This mechanism opetares in a way that perceiving an act performed by another can lead one to perform that action, and the effect of perception on behaviour is an automatic process that does not depend on explicit choice (Bargh and Chartrand 1999).
The process is relevant for understanding what the chameleon effect is, and what its role in this discussion on aggressiveness is. The chameleon effect is the “nonconscious mimicry of the postures, mannerisms, facial expressions, and other behaviours of one’s interaction partners, such that one’s behavious passively and unintentinally changes to match that of others in one’s current social environment” (Bargh and Chartrand 1999, p. 893). In other words, social perception automatically results in corresponding social behaviour. So far, the ideomotor action, automatic behaviour, the chameleon effect and the perception-behaviour link are conceptual tools for making sense of human behaviour. Based on such concepts and studies, the perception that media violence explains increased aggression formed.
According to the above mentioned processes, children and young adults extensively exposed to violent media will become more aggressive or will perform violent acts in the future. Johson et. al (2002) argue that televised violence accounts, in large measure, for the association between TV viewing and aggression, and that this association is only partially attributable to environmental characteristics, such as education, family traits, social background, personality etc.
II. Limitations of media violence research
In this part, I argue against the claim that media violence increases the likelihood of aggressiveness in children and young adults, based on evidence from the existing literature. All the studies in support of the relationship between media violence and aggressiveness state the limitations of their methodology, mostly because of uncontrolled factors in the experiments, or the narrow focus of the research on only one factor.
First of all, the current literature on the effects of media violence on aggressive behaviour face some ecological fallacies. There are vague definitions of aggression, misconfusing aggression with violence, when the two concepts are totally different, and when there is no causal relationship between them (Olson 2004). Moreover, some researchers emphasize the positive aspects of moderate aggressiveness in the form of a spirit of competitiveness witnessed in sports, an increased likelihood of adaptation of youngsters, standing up for one’s beliefs, assertiveness, defending others in need, carreers in law inforcement and the military etc. (Ferguson and Beaver 2009). Secondly, media violence literature is problematic because of the use of invalid or unreliable measures and lack of control for “third” variables (Ferguson 2008, Olson 2004, Savage 2008). Finally, the theory of causality is very hard to apply in this type of research, when the complexity of real life relationships are ignored or imporperly measured, and consequently, generalisations are hard to be made (Grimes and Bergen 2008, Savage and Yancey 2008, Olson 2004, Gauntlett 2005).
If automatic behaviour was so clarely related to media violence, and if media violence would automatically imply a highten risk of children and young people exposed to it behaving more aggressively, this would mean that, by now, and with all the violent entertainment programmes and video games on the market, we would be facing the peak of the crime rate. But this is not the case. On the contrary, “in the United States and most other industrialized nations, violent crimes among youth and adults have reached the lowest point in decades. With the exception of school bullying, arrests of youths for serious crimes have been on a steady decrease since the early 1990s. Self-report victimization statistics indicate that serious forms of violence experienced by youth have lessened over the past several decades” (Ferguson et. al 2009, p. 1). Moreover, TVs are some of the most frequent accessories in today’s homes. Video games not so much, at least not in all countries. However, in the U.S., for example, only in 1999, “83% of children ages 8 to 18 reported having at least one video game console in their home, and 45% had one in their bedroom. In addition, 74% have at least one computer at home. Fifty-five percent of boys and 23% of girls said they played video games on a typical day, with nearly 20%, primarily boys, playing an ‘action or combat [game]’” (Olson 2004, p. 146). This means that access to violent media is quite easy for a child or youngster, and exposure seems to be great.