Hostility on screen may lead to real aggression

IOWA STATE (US) — Watching video clips of hostile behavior—such as gossip and emotional bullying—may prime the brain for aggression, a new study finds.

“What this study shows is that relational aggression actually can cause a change in the way you think,” says Douglas Gentile, associate professor of psychology at Iowa State University who runs the Media Research Lab. “And that matters because of course, how you think can change your behavior.”

For the study published in the journal Aggressive Behavior, researchers evaluated the cognitive patterns of 250 college women after they viewed one of three fictional video clips.


One clip depicted physical aggression, including a gun and knife fight that ended in murder. A second clip portrayed relational aggression, where girls steal boyfriends, spread malicious gossip, and kick someone out of their social circle. The third clip was simply a scary scene, one that would raise the heartbeat.

The researchers assessed physiological arousal and found all three films produced similar levels of excitement. They then measured reaction times when aggressive or neutral words flashed on a screen. Participants who had watched either aggressive film clip ascribed more meaning to words connected with aggression.

“Past research has shown that viewing physical violence on TV activates aggressive scripts in the brain, but our findings suggest that watching both onscreen physical or relational aggression activates those cognitive scripts,” says co-author Jennifer Ruh Linder, professor of psychology at Linfield College.

“Viewers don’t simply choose to imitate TV characters or make a conscious decision to engage in aggressive behavior. Aggressive reactions are more automatic and less conscious than most people assume.”

The study has significance to today’s societal norms, Gentile says.

“This matters because we see relational aggression as being more socially accepted, to the point that you don’t even notice it most of the time. And yet most of the violent aggression you see on TV is relational aggression,” he says.

“It’s the mean put-downs that you laugh at as if that’s OK. And you walk into any seventh-grade classroom and how do the kids treat each other? They’re sarcastic and sardonic and caustic. And they think they’re being funny and friendly. But now we’re finding that the effect is worse than hitting them.”

And some of the most highly publicized effects have been a result of the rising incidence of cyberbullying, which Gentile says is a classic case of relational aggression.

“We’re treating cyberbullying as if it’s something totally different and totally new. It’s actually relational aggression and it does all the things that relational aggression does,” Gentile says.

“You can spread rumors, you can ignore people, I can unlike you on Facebook, I can tell your secrets, and I can lie and make up stuff. So this study relates to cyberbullying.”

The researchers say more research is needed to determine whether their results are gender-specific, and whether this script activation indeed changes behavior.

Researchers from Brigham Young University contributed to the study.

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