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Violent Imagery Leaves Viewers 'Comfortably Numb'

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Would you help a disabled woman pick up the crutches she dropped outside a cinema? Disturbing new research suggests it may depend upon which movie you just saw.

Evidence continues to mount that violent media imagery impacts the behavior of viewers. In late 2007, Columbia University researchers reported that on-screen violence stimulates specific responses in the human brain. A recent review of 41 studies going back to the 1960s concluded that virtual violence increases the risk that both children and adults will act aggressively.

In a just-published paper, one of the co-authors of that last report – Brad Bushman of the University of Michigan’s School for Social Research – concludes that media violence desensitizes viewers to the pain of others, making it less likely they will offer help to those in need. He titles his paper Comfortably Numb, after a song by the rock band Pink Floyd.

In one study, Bushman and colleagues staged “a minor emergency” just outside one of two cinemas – one showing the violent horror film The Ruins, the other featuring the family-friendly Nim’s Island. On four occasions – as patrons were either entering or exiting the theater for each film-- a woman with a wrapped ankle suggesting an injury or sprain dropped her crutches. The moviegoers witnessed her struggling to pick them up.

The results: People who had just viewed the violent movie took 26 percent longer to help her than those in the other three conditions. There was no difference in the rate of help offered by those walking into the two films, which “rules out the possibility that less-helpful people were more likely to attend the violent movies,” the researchers write.

In a second test, 320 college students played either a violent or non-violent video game for 20 minutes. While completing a questionnaire after the game, they heard two people engage in a heated argument in the hall outside the lab. The staged incident escalated into violence, as evidenced by the sound of a crash and groans of pain. It concluded with one person storming out, leaving the other injured and lying on the floor.

“Participants who played a violent game took significantly longer to help – over 450 percent longer – than participants who played a nonviolent game,” the researchers report. In addition, those who played the violent game (such as Mortal Kombat or Duke Nukem) were less likely to notice that a fight was going on. And when they did pay attention, they took it less seriously.

“The findings from both studies suggest that violent media make people numb to the pain and suffering of others,” the researchers conclude. Viewing such imagery leads to “decreased sympathy for the victim, increased belief that violence is normative, and decreased negative attitudes towards violence,” all of which “decrease feelings of personal responsibility” to help victims of violence.

Hollywood isn’t going to stop making slasher films any time soon, since they’re relatively cheap to produce and highly profitable. But such studies suggest studios can no longer say with a straight face that they’re just harmless entertainment.