The Utopian Pseudo-Science of Media Effects

On the 20th of April, 1999, Eric Harris and Dylan Klebold embarked on the most high profile school shooting of all time. Donned in black trench-coats, and armed with shotguns, explosives, and semi-automatic handguns, the pair murdered twelve students and one teacher before committing suicide. Twenty-four other students were injured in the incident. The agony of that tragic day was quickly followed by a wave of moral panic, and the public search for answers was couched in a predictable litany of finger pointing and recrimination (Moore, Glynn, Czarnecki, Bishop & Donovan, 2002). Media violence was indicted with the crimes of two mentally ill teenagers who had run amok.1

It is true that Eric and Dylan played first-person shooters, a popular type of violent computer game in which millions of teenagers hunt and kill each other every day. They were also part of a Goth subculture that listened to “degraded” music, and were the victims of schoolyard bullying. But FBI investigators indicated that pre-existing psychopathology were important causal factors: Eric was a psychopath, and Dylan was depressive (Cullen, 2004). Public outrage, however, was directed squarely at Marilyn Manson, and his “antisocial” music.

Such public outrage is fertile territory for moral entrepreneurs. Politicians naturally engage in the politics of substitution to win public acclamation — creating the perception of action by picking easy targets. Violent media becomes the Jew, the Witch, the evil other. It is imbued with the causal power to harm society, and this arms moral authoritarians in their quixotic quest to control culture for the sake of “at risk” sub-populations. Whether it is teenagers, or ignorants who have not had their consciousnesses “raised,” the at-risk group is always someone else, someone less intelligent or less wise than the moralist. Unfortunately, the underlying problems are never understood nor addressed, and witch hunts continue to re-occur as part of the tragic cycle of collective human suffering.

Media researchers, however, are unlikely to attribute the Columbine massacre to the effects of violent media. Eighty years of research and hundreds of studies have put strict upper limits on media effects (Huesmann, 2007). The pre-eminent researcher in the field, Dr Rowell Huesmann, has built his reputation on proving the causal hypothesis. When critised for overstating the case, Huesmann conceded: “Nowhere have we ever indicated that media violence is the only or even a major cause of violence among youth.” (Huesmann & Eron, 2000).

This deflection is intended to sustain the rectitude of the researchers’ life work, and to stave off further scrutiny. However, media researchers frequently offer explanations for social behaviour that extend far beyond the external validity of their studies (Freedman, 2002). For the true believer, research proceeds from conclusions backwards to evidence. The pernicious effects of media violence are “data-proof,” sustained by a collective zeal that something must be done. Throughout history, media policy debates have always been marked by moralists attempting to control degraded public appetites (Miller, 2002; Trend 2007), and violent movies and videogames have recently become the lightning rod for moralistic discontent. However, the causal hypothesis evaporates when it is examined by the objective and scientific mind.

Taken at face value, less than half of media violence research supports the causal hypothesis (Freedman 2002), and to derive this generous figure, one must confuse correlation with causation whilst consistently overlooking methodological flaws. The measured effect sizes are so small and inconsistent that they are easily consumed by alternative explanations such as demand characteristics and arousal. Media violence researchers fail to recognise the implications of applying null-hypothesis significance testing to the study of a fundamentally non-linear chaotic system. The non-linear quality of behaviour is especially important for small effect sizes. If a media violence researcher were to study traffic, they would be liable to conclude that you should not cross the road, because on average it is dangerous. Missing, of course, is the complex interaction between the attention of both the driver and pedestrian, and countless other variables that could factor into an accident. Instead of questioning the integrity of small effects sizes, media violence researchers frequently exaggerate them, and a canard has developed that the effect size is about 0.3 (Freedman). Canards aside, the most important deficit in media violence research is that no media violence study has credible external validity: generalising from results to society requires a leap of faith. For the true believer the problem no doubt lies in “masculinist” science and “value-free” objectivity. However, at a certain point social scientists must ask themselves why their results are so poor, and if they are merely massaging the numbers to create something out of nothing (for further reading, see: Ferguson & Kilburn, 2010; Fischoff, 1999; Freedman; Pinker, 2002; Savage, 2008; Trend, 2007).

Social scientists sometimes see themselves as part of a cultural revolution to transform society — drawing a thread from themselves through the civil rights movements of the 60s and 70s, and further backwards in history to other liberal transformations. There is a certain grandiose excitement to casting down the shackles of conservative thinking. Utopian visions and righteous zeal contact our tender wounds, and thus ensures a reckless tear through society’s complex afflictions. And so psychologists re-educate the young and misinformed. The true believer thinks they are saving society, but in reality they are planting the seeds of suffering. It is an age-old formula.

Content analysis is one popular avenue for indoctrinating students into the causal hypothesis of media effects. While interesting in-and-of-itself, content analyses almost always beg the question, and this effect is not limited to student assignments. The NTVS was the largest content analysis ever conducted, employing 300 researchers who quantified violence in 10 000 hours of television, and concluded that “40% of violent incidents were initiated by ‚Äògood’ characters who are likely to be perceived as attractive role models.” (NTVS, 1998, p. 1). An examination of the causal hypothesis is conspicuously absent from the solemn proclamations of the long-term ill effects of violent media. The NTVS researchers identified violent actions in media, and proceeded on the basis that these violent actions adversely affect behaviour. After-all, “a multi-billion dollar advertising industry is built on the premise.” (Freedman, 2002). Missing from the NTVS report — and content analyses in general — is why we would choose to watch violent media at all.

Social scientists are “effects” researchers, and generally approach the topic of media violence with a disciplinary bias. Social constructionists want to build a case for re-engineering culture as a panacea for violence, gender bias, discrimination and other forms of collective suffering. This mind is determined to effect social change, and sees culture as the cause and behaviour as the effect. But culture does not exist apart from human nature, and cannot be understood without reference to human nature (Harris, 1998; Pinker, 2002; Turkheimer, 2000). Misunderstanding cause and effect goes hand-in-hand with misunderstanding action and consequence, and social constructionists are perpetrating their own curious brand of violence. Nothing is what is seems.

For example, perpetuating the myth of media violence plays into the hands of moral entrepreneurs who take advantage of events such as the Columbine High School Massacre. Riding on the coat-tails of science, the media violence myth also ensures confusion amongst professionals. For example, when sentencing Jon Venables and Robert Thompson for the murder of Jamie Bulger, the trial judge denounced media violence as a causal factor (Freedman, 2002). These two ten-year-old boys kidnapped two-year-old Jamie, tortured and beat him, and left his body on train tracks to be run over. According to the judge, Jon and Robert were influenced by a TV program that featured kidnapping and murder; however, the police report indicated that the boys never saw the program.

Professional bodies, such as the APA, AAP and APsychA have whole-heartedly endorsed the causal hypothesis, and do far more societal harm than isolated incidents. Sommers (1994) details how the boards of professional academic bodies were systematically overtaken by ideologically pure radical left-wing thinkers. More than ever, science is peddled as a political and moral tool, and ultimately this can only damage the reputation of science and undermine its ability to shape public policy when it is really needed. For example, global warming deniers assert that scientists are just ideologues, and that anthropogenic global warming is the product of a liberal education system. Such assertions are infuriating because they contain a grain of truth. By carelessly using the reputation of science, media effect researchers become talking points for right-wing demagogues in their assault on intellectualism. By endorsing a half-baked theory as fact, the APA and its ilk are reducing the credence for evidence based public policy, and alienating politicians who must sometimes wonder why scientists think they should be taken seriously.

Unwarranted parental stress is another unintended side-effect of media violence pseudo-science. The AAP offers unrealistic parenting advice that is bound to raise the anxieties of already over-worked parents — advice that paediatricians are meant to administer in a professional capacity (American Academy of Paediatrics Committe on Public Education, 2001). The lead author of the policy document took umbrage at the suggestion that the causal hypothesis was not proven, and defended his work with appeals to authority, and the suggestion that deniers are somehow in the pocket of big media or suffering from some sort of pathological denial (V. Strasburger, personal communication, October 4, 2010). Beliefs are often protected via appeals to authority; however, in the case of media violence, those authorities have not answered the hard questions themselves. Instead we see Freud’s ego defence mechanisms in full bloom in the form of intellectualisation and minimisation (Anderson, Ihori, Bushman, Rothstein, et al., 2010), or projection and denial (Heusmann, 2010).

Academics from other disciplines see violence in different ways. For example, criminologists have long been skeptical of the pernicious effects of violent media simply because the case has not been made (Savage, 2008). Perhaps criminologists are aided by professional distance from the debate. Academics who study media outside of psychology are well aware of the complex interaction between media and viewer. Violence is not transmitted from the media to the consumer, but rather, the consumer engages in a process of expectation that accepts, rejects, ignores, or reinvents the intended message of the media producer. The experiences and beliefs of the audience are important factors in the interpretation of media, and children are not the passive tabula rasa sketch pads that social constructionists want us to believe (Harris, 1997; Pinker 2002). Indeed, there is an innate human nature, with complex propensities and proclivities, and it is at least as important as sociocultural factors in explaining behaviour (Turkheimer, 2000). Young children spontaneously construct their own hierarchies, are fascinated by acts and displays of power, relish in hero discourses during unstructured play, and universally identify altruism as a hero’s defining trait (Dyson, 1996; Harris, 1998; Tucker, 2006; White & O’Brian, 1999). Boys in particular hold physicality as a male preserve, and consider it important in delineating social hierarchy (Dyson).

This thought is often attacked as some form of extreme essentialism or biological determinism; however, the opposite is indeed the case. Stating the importance of both biology and culture is a middle point of view that is backed by a vast array of evidence. There are no main-stream theories that remove culture from the human story, but there are plenty of main-stream theories that remove biology. Social constructionists steer clear of human nature, letting their theories drift on an amorphous cultural super-organism that shapes a comparatively structureless mind. Consequently the things that one does not like about themselves — the shadow — can be projected onto society. And so, the super-organism is merely a circuitous approach to saying that racism, sexism, and violence are bad, but one does not need eccentric theories of human nature to do that. Whether individually or collectively, to free oneself from the shadow, it must be explored and understood, and not parochially projected onto society. Violence, racism and sexism start within, not without.

The media industry argues that the free market is the final arbiter of what audiences want, and the public has overwhelmingly voted with their wallets for more media violence. It is easy to dismiss media industry arguments and first amendment whining as self-serving, but there is always the possibility that they may actually be correct. Some may want to believe in violence and war as passing cultural fads, or even that our prehistory was non-violent; however, wishful thinking cannot solve our problems.

The imaginary beginnings of humankind were marked by violence that is unprecedented in modern times — even after accounting for two world wars (Keely, 1996). Like it or not, people are thrilled by sex and violence, separate or together. The media industry is on a hedonic treadmill in its quest to out-titillate, and the purpose is to sell ever larger audiences to advertisers. Each year sees more violence porn — aesthetic and unrealistic acts of power and mayhem — and cynical young audiences are still awestruck and come back for more. Given the paucity of evidence for the causal hypothesis of media violence, it is doubtful that youths are being harmed by having their brains buzzed by primitive fears and desires. The real tragedy of media violence has been overlooked: in the sustained effort to engineer a predictable emotional response from the audience, the breadth of human experience has been truncated by trite cliches. Media conglomerates count money, not meaning. To be fair, intelligent human stories continue to be told between sexy outfits and gratuitous chest thumping. Media producers such as HBO combine intelligent writing with shocking immorality, in shows such as The Tudors and Six Feet Under. And the violence and crime rates continue to come down despite the most sophisticated and depraved media industry in all of history.

The real statistics on violence are an uncomfortable fact for media violence researchers. They are rarely talked about, except to assert that media violence is just one of many causal factors. It is human nature to defend one’s intellectual creations, but academics have an ethical responsibility to engage in a basic level of academic discourse — if not to themselves, then to the tax payer who subsidises them, and students who trust their expertise.

Although the academy is famous for its ivory towers, every media researcher is sure that those lofty egotistical heights lie elsewhere. Having impugned objectivity for the sake of pushing political action, media violence researchers have made themselves moral bastions who battle the pernicious and self-secret effects of society’s myths and lessons. They will change our environment for our own good, because they have the “insight” into our predicament and want to shape us into better people. Externalised self-discontent is the inspiration behind this radical form of liberalism. Political preference has a biological interaction, and people automatically sort themselves into roughly two groups: liberal and conservative. No group can claim a monopoly on wisdom. Where conservatism can stray toward the status-quo, liberalism is prone to externalisation. An immature mind can blame its problems on either its parents, or society, or both. If society is to blame, then it must be fixed so that others do not have to suffer in the same way. The primacy of the quest for self-knowledge is missing from this line of thought. It is ethical to know oneself first, before seeking to change others.

The journey of self-discovery, the spiritual journey, ends when we try to live by what ought to be instead of searching for what is. The moralist is always asking themselves what they want, an egotistical proposition, and forgets the far more important question: “who am I?” From this point of view, the lack of evidence for the causal hypothesis is good news. For the true spiritual seeker, every answer is an inspiration to look further and deeper in an endless process that ultimately defeats self-deception. Compared to an expert, a child is better situated to learn something new, a sentiment that Suzuki Roshi (1970) captured in the title of his book: Zen Mind, Beginner’s Mind. Anybody interested in understanding the problem of violence, or reducing violence within society, will need their beginner’s mind. One can perceive an act of fictitious violence and watch their mind and ask “who am I?” In this way, solid notions of reality give way to the spirit of curiosity which undoes the mechanisms of suffering, both individual and collective.

Violence can only be understood with reference to both culture and biology, and this poses no threat to the beginner’s mind. Intelligence does not own ideas —- only the ego does that. To cut through self-deception, the mind must learn to rest on thoughts that it does not like. Otherwise, the intellect remains founded in individual and collective chauvinism — the place where it began in childhood. Therefore, as human beings, we have good reason to cherish objectivity as a worthy pursuit, and that requires the discipline of processing even the most confronting thoughts. Moralism is just one of the endless ways that the ego double-crosses itself, asserting its superiority, and defeating its best intentions. Every action has unintended side-effects, and this is exactly what we see in the utopian pseudo-science of media effects. A sense of personal rectitude is an obstacle in addressing societal violence, because righteousness handicaps our ability to question. No doubt, the media violence debate will continue, as it always has. But hopefully psychology will soon experience a paradigm shift that will place some distance between politics and science, and thereby allow the flourishing of a deeper understanding of who we are, why we are sometimes violent, and what we can do about it.


1 Note the etymology of the word “amok,” which comes to English from Malay, via Portuguese, in the mid 17th century. Homicidal frenzies are not a modern phenomenon, and have a depressingly familiar theme. Young disenfranchised low-status men destroy themselves in a resentful and merciless bloodbath. The significance of amok man cannot be understood under the social constructionist paradigm, which fixates on cultural explanations — even for human universals. Social constructionists explore the issue of amok man through the creation of violent masculinities, an assumption that men are born non-violent and are somehow taught to be so. The opposite is indeed the case, and we see violence reduce as maturity levels increase. A fixation on cultural explanations is a diversion on this important issue. Amok man teaches us the centrality of emotional explosions, or the threat thereof, to the formation of society. Whether we run amok or not, we are always censoring and self-censoring because we live under the threat of someone else losing control of themselves. Thus, each of us contains an emotional dooms-day device with which we unconsciously control the thoughts and actions of those around us. This natural process is intimately tied to the formation of social hierarchy and the flow of information through society. The mitigation of bloody frenzies, such as Columbine, has nothing to do with masculinity or the media, or frisking teenagers, and instead requires a working understanding of that emotional dooms-day device, because that is what has malfunctioned.


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© 2010, Aaron Michaux