Unaffected by cause and effect?

media-spoonfeeding-cartoon Computer games train killers? Porn leads to sex assaults? You could be forgiven for thinking that we’re all mere ciphers, operating under the influence of whatever the media throw at us: sex, violence and wayward political views (I’ll leave it to you to decide which of those is worse), courtesy of films, TV, video nasties, computer games, music, and so on.

Media effects theory is rather broad in scope, but forms the basis of moral panics. Simply put, if we see people do bad things, we’re influenced to do bad things. To make society better, we have to be stopped from seeing people doing bad things.

In the early 1960s, Bandura’s famous Bobo Doll experiment demonstrated how children can be influenced by behaviour they see on screen… therefore, everyone can be influenced by what they see? Is it really that simple? For the sake of brevity, I can only summarise and provide links to better articles, but I’ll focus on a few specific examples of sex (pornography) and violence (computer games). What follows is only a bare glimpse of a large topic, and is certainly not the last word on the subject!

Sex in the media

A big problem here is that there’s no legal definition of what is ‘indecent’ or pornographic. We’re no better off than US Supreme Court Justice Potter Stewart, who famously said “hard-core pornography” was hard to define, but that “I know it when I see it.” We have no way of telling the difference between ‘titillating’, ‘erotic’ and ‘pornographic’, or whether or not porn is ethical.  Only ‘Extreme Porn’ has a legal definition in the UK, and even then it’s not without controversy. (You’d think the government would learn not to stick its nose where it isn’t wanted… so to speak). For that matter, graphic sex scenes can appear in drama shows, but these drama shows aren’t referred to as ‘porn’; how does one tell the difference?

Kendall (2006) found that as internet porn use increased, there was a decrease in sex attacks committed by men, sharpest among the 15-19 age group. It seems that instead of seeking victims, potential rapists are now taking matters into their own hands instead? In fact there’s very little to link porn to negative outcomes (sex attacks and misogynistic attitudes, for example) – an excellent summary of research can be found here.

There doesn’t seem to be much in the way of evidence to show it’s actually bad for us, but I’m not sure if we can go as far as saying that porn is ‘good for us‘. Just because a censorious opinion is unsupported by the facts, that doesn’t mean the opposite opinion is automatically true. In any case, media effects don’t appear to work here.


h03DA2903 The game Grand Theft Auto V was recently removed from certain shop shelves in Australia after a campaign criticising its portrayal of violence against women (a counter-campaign says the Bible should be banned for similar reasons).

Do violent games make players violent? Anderson and Bushman (2001) found violent games increase physiological arousal and violent thoughts (mind you, it would be a pretty dull game that didn’t lead to these things). A meta-analysis by Sherry (2001) found that violent games have a small effect on aggression (violent TV shows had a greater effect); human and fantasy violence has a greater effect than sports violence, and that the longer spent playing violent games, the smaller the effect on aggression (once players get over the novelty of it, the gameplay will eventually bore them); being crap at a game increases a player’s aggression.

Peng et al (2008) found players respond in different ways to games; aggressive personalities tend to choose more violent interactions in games like The Godfather or True Crime: Streets of LA. So, can we say that violent people like to play violent games, rather than violent games make people violent?

Barlett et al (2009) compared the levels of aggression (measured by questionnaires, heart rate and ‘hot sauce’ – giving chilli sauce to someone who says they don’t like spicy food) induced by the games žMortal Kombat and Hard Hitter Tennis. žAggressive thoughts and feelings last less than 4 minutes; žeffects on arousal and behaviour last up to 9 minutes, regardless of whether violent or not. Adachi & Willoughby (2011) found competition resulted in aggression, not screen violence. Another recent study found games did not diminish players’ ‘pro-social’ behaviour, either.

It takes rather more involved training than mere computer games to turn someone into a killer. Kutner & Olson (across various papers) say the effects of exposure to violence, gore and sex are subtle; some children at greater risk than others. But they showed that adolescents who don’t play video games at all are most at-risk for violent behavior. Playing games has been linked to better-adjusted children; another study suggests that ‘bad’ games might even increase moral sensitivity in real life.

Violent games might make children more aggressive in the short term after playing them, but we can’t say they’ll turn them into violent children. People who play games know they’re games, and not ‘real’. More people are playing computer games (including violent, or morally complex ones), but violence is declining.

We can’t really say that violent games lead to a more violent society (unless we’re really into our moral panics), but neither can we assume that violent computer games are making society less violent (there are a whole heap of causes for violence). Whatever’s going on, media effects theory falls down again.


There is simply a lack of evidence to support Media Effects Theory. In order to see how media might affect behaviour, it would be more instructive to test Social Cognitive Theory. It’s also worth asking, are the media in question being used to entertain, or educate? What is the context of its presentation? What are the circumstances of the viewer?

People will seek out things that appeal to their sensibilities; they prefer to view things they already agree with; they want to feel good rather than be challenged. This applies to other purported media effects, too – for example, advertising might be a waste of a company’s money. (As well as politicians’ money.)

If there’s any media effect at all, it’s on our lawmakers, responding to the latest moral panic in the hopes of currying favour with whoever they perceive to be the majority (or most influential) of voters. It boils down to censorship. If something is seen as objectionable by a person or group, rather than choose not to view it themselves, they will seek to stop anyone from viewing it.

“The whole principle is wrong; it’s like demanding that grown men live on skim milk because the baby can’t eat steak.” – Robert A. Heinlein (The Man Who Sold the Moon, 1950)


2 responses to “Unaffected by cause and effect?

  1. Pingback: David Leyonhjelm guest post. We are not all Charlie - Freedom's Floodgates·

  2. Pingback: "For Your Own Good:" The Problem with Trying to Save Us from Ourselves - Freedom's Floodgates·

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