Why is there so much graphic violence in contemporary entertainment? Producers will tell you the answer is simple: because people enjoy it.
According to newly published research, the real reason may be: Because it’s easy to market.
When it comes to graphic gore, there’s a gap between what whets our appetite and what we actually find satisfying. That’s the conclusion of a study by Indiana University scholars Andrew Weaver and Matthew Kobach, which found students were enticed by descriptions of violent scenes, but actually enjoyed the programs more when those elements were edited out.
“Violent content seldom increases enjoyment,” the researchers write in the journal Aggressive Behavior. “This experiment demonstrates that this is the case even when viewers are seeking out violent content.”
For their study, which featured 191 IU undergraduates ranging in age from 18 to 27, Weaver and Kobach chose episodes from four popular television dramas known for their violent scenes: Oz, Kingpin, The Sopranos and 24.
They wrote two different descriptions of each episode: One described the violent scenes in detail, using terms such as “stabbing” and “killing,” while the other used euphemisms such as “tragic results” or “they look to settle the score.”
Similarly, they utilized two different versions of each episode: the original and a cleaned-up cut in which the violent scenes were excised. These gore-free versions were nearly five minutes shorter than the originals.
Each participant was given four descriptions to read – two violent, two nonviolent – and asked to choose which program they wished to watch. After making their decision, they were randomly assigned to watch either the original, violent episode of the show or its edited, nonviolent version.
“Participants were more likely to choose to watch programs with violent descriptions than they were programs with nonviolent descriptions,” the researchers report. “Enjoyment of actual viewing, on the other hand, was lower for viewing violent programs.
“Importantly, even when participants in this experiment chose programs with violent descriptions over programs with nonviolent descriptions, enjoyment was higher for viewing nonviolent episodes than for viewing violent episodes.”
So if we enjoy nonviolent programs more, why do we keep tuning into violent ones? Weaver and Kobach offer several possible explanations. One is that viewers may use violence “as a predictor of other enjoyable types of content.” They assume that a violent film or television show will also have the sort of action or intense dramatic conflict they enjoy.
Another possibility, which is drawn from evolutionary psychology, is that our brains are wired to pay close attention to images of murder and mayhem, “given the severe costs and potential payoffs associated with violence.” Like our ancient ancestors who had to be attentive to possible predators, the prospect of violence heightens our attention. We instinctively want to know more, which in this case means buying a DVD or pay-cable package.
All this is bound to produce mixed reactions. Much evidence links violent entertainment with higher levels of aggressive behavior – and we are watching this stuff, whether or not we’re getting much enjoyment from it. In the researchers’ words, that makes this dynamic a “public health threat.”
But on another level, it’s a relief to realize we’re not bloodthirsty creatures who get great pleasure out of watching violence. It seems our satisfaction with The Sopranos comes not from the stabbings, but from the storytelling.