Can Exposure to Violence Inspire Unethical Behavior?

New research finds words or images depicting violent human-on-human contact increase one's likelihood of cheating for monetary gain.
(Photo: Mario Tama/Getty Images)

(Photo: Mario Tama/Getty Images)

Between blood-soaked action movies, fashionably dark television dramas, and shoot-to-kill video games, many Americans are regularly exposed to an unprecedented array of violent acts. Philosophers and scientists alike have wondered what this disturbing imagery is doing to us.

A team of researchers is proposing a surprising answer: It may be turning us less ethical.

Experimental evidence suggests exposure to violence apparently encourages lying and cheating for monetary gain. This dynamic may be largely confined to men, but given that males continue to dominate the executive ranks at most major institutions (including financial ones), that's cold comfort.

"Exposure to human violence increases aggressive thoughts and feelings towards others," Brigham Young University scholars David WoodJoshua Gubler, and two colleagues write in the Journal of Business Ethics. "These thoughts and feelings motivate less-ethical decision making."

The negative impacts of violent entertainment are more widespread than we imagined.

Their first experiment featured 237 participants recruited online via Amazon's Mechanical Turk, who were "hired" to edit 10 sentences. If they found a grammatical or other error, they were instructed to describe it and re-type the sentence correctly. If they did not, they were told to simply check a box labeled "correct."

"The incentive to cheat was clear," the researchers write. "Mark all sentences 'correct,' and you earned money more quickly."

For approximately half of the participants, seven of the 10 sentences referred to a violent act. (Example: "She picked up her gun, shot the civilians, and walks out the door.") For the others, all 10 were violence-free.

The researchers found participants who read violent statements were far more likely to mark "at least one incorrect sentence as correct, rather than taking time to carefully complete the task." The same proved true in a second, similar experiment featuring 143 people.

For the third experiment, 603 participants, again recruited online, were randomly assigned to watch two short video clips (for a total time of under five minutes). They watched two scenes featuring violent confrontations between humans, two intense but non-violent scenes, or two "dull" scenes lacking in any significant action.

All were then instructed to view an additional 10-minute film clip that was "boring and long enough to generate an incentive for participants to skip watching." At the end of the study, participants were specifically asked whether they had followed instructions and watched all of the clips in their entirety.

The researchers report that men who saw the violent snippets were significantly more likely to lie than those who watched either a dull film or an intense but non-violent one. Tellingly, participants whose self-reported hostility levels rose after seeing the violent clips were the most likely to falsely claim they had fully completed the assignment.

In contrast, seeing the violent videos "did not affect the ethics of our female participants," they write. The percentage of women who cheated remained roughly the same no matter which clips they watched.

In a final study, the researchers compared the ethical profile of different companies (using three measures, including Securities and Exchange Commission enforcement actions) with the level of violent crime in the metropolitan areas where the firms are headquartered.

"The predicted probability of committing fraud increased by 27 percent in a high violent crime area vs. a company in a low violent crime area," the researchers write. This, they suggest, may be attributable to increased exposure to violence, either personally (such as being the victim of a mugger), and/or on the local news.

"Although such evidence cannot be interpreted causally," they add, "the fact it is consistent with the observable implications of our experimental findings is yet another support for the argument."

The authors note that more research is needed to confirm and refine these findings. Measuring the effects of repeated exposure to violence will tell us a lot; so will further experiments exploring why women apparently react to written but not visual representations of violent acts.

If their conclusions are confirmed, it will turn out that the negative impacts of violent entertainment are more widespread than we imagined. Few of us would have guessed it, but Grand Theft Auto just may inspire Petty Theft Company Cashbox.


Findings is a daily column by Pacific Standard staff writer Tom Jacobs, who scours the psychological-research journals to discover new insights into human behavior, ranging from the origins of our political beliefs to the cultivation of creativity.