Desensitization and Media Effects

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Desensitization is a psychological process that has often been involved in explaining viewers' emotional reactions to media violence. Research on emotional reactions to violent messages has been concerned with the possibility that continued exposure to violence in the mass media will result in desensitization, that is, that exposure to media violence will undermine feelings of concern, empathy, or sympathy that viewers might have toward victims of actual violence.

To understand the effects of repeated exposure to violence, researchers have suggested that viewers become comfortable with violence that is initially anxiety provoking, much as they would if they were undergoing exposure therapy. According to Gordon Paul and D. A. Bernstein (1973), exposure therapy is widely regarded as the most effective clinical therapy for training individuals to engage in behaviors that were previously inhibited by anxiety responses. Originally, researchers emphasized a therapeutic counterconditioning technique known as "systematic desensitization," in which the patient was gradually and systematically exposed to a graded series of anxiety provoking objects or situations. Many researchers, including Edna B. Foa and Michael J. Kozak (1986), have demonstrated that simply exposing a patient to frightening stimuli, regardless of whether it is presented in graduated form, will significantly diminish the anxiety or negative affect that the stimulus once evoked. This logic may be applied to the effects of repeated exposure to media violence.

Most of the early work on desensitization to media violence, such as that conducted by Victor B. Cline and his colleagues (1973) and Margaret H. Thomas and her colleagues (1977), involved exposure to rather mild forms of television violence for relatively short periods of time. These studies indicated that viewers who watched large amounts of media violence showed less physiological reactivity to violent film clips, compared to viewers who watched only small amounts, and that general physiological arousal decreased as viewers watched more violent media. Children as well as adults are susceptible to this effect.

More recently, Daniel Linz, Edward Donner-stein, and Steven Penrod (1984, 1988) measured the reactions of adult men to films that portrayed violence against women, often in a sexual context. The viewings took place over a period of several days, and comparisons of first-day reactions and last-day reactions to the films showed that, with repeated exposure, initial levels of self-reported anxiety decreased substantially. Furthermore, the research participants' perceptions of the films also changed from the first day to the last day. Material that was previously judged to be violent and degrading to women was considered to be significantly less so by the end of the exposure period. Participants also indicated that they were less depressed and enjoyed the material more with repeated exposure. These effects generalized to responses to a victim of sexual assault in a mock trial presented to the men at a later time. Men who had been exposed to the sexually violent films, compared to a no-exposure group, rated the victim as being less severely injured. The men who had been exposed to the violent film, again compared to men in a no-exposure control group, were also less sympathetic to the rape victim portrayed in the trial and less able to empathize with rape victims in general. These effects did not emerge following exposure to a single film. Longer film exposure was necessary for it to affect the violence-viewing participants' general empathetic response. Linz and his colleagues (1984, 1988) suggested that the viewers were becoming comfortable with anxiety-provoking situations much as they would if they were undergoing desensitization therapy. Carol Krafka and her associates (1997) observed these same effects for women who viewed sexual violence. Linz and his colleagues (1989) also showed that a reduction in physiological responsiveness accompanies repeated exposure to sexualized violence and that viewing violent films results in less sympathy for victims of domestic violence as well as rape victims.

Most recently, Charles R. Mullin and Linz (1995) demonstrated that viewers who show a desensitization toward victims of violence in non-media contexts following exposure to media violence may recover sensitivity rather quickly provided they are not exposed to additional violent depictions. An experiment was conducted to examine the effects of repeated exposure to sexually violent films on emotional desensitization and callousness toward domestic abuse victims. Results indicated that emotional responses, self-reported physiological arousal, and ratings of the extent to which the films were sexually violent all diminished with repeated film exposure. Three days following exposure to the final film, participants in the experiment expressed significantly less sympathy for domestic violence victims and rated their injuries as being less severe than did a no-exposure control group. Five days after the final film exposure, the participants' level of sensitivity to the victims of domestic violence rebounded to the baseline levels that were established by the no-exposure comparison group.

In conclusion, exposure to violence in the mass media may result in a desensitization effect in which viewers experience diminished feelings of concern, empathy, or sympathy toward victims of actual violence. Research has shown that viewers who watch large amounts of media violence show less physiological reactivity to violence in other contexts. Men and women who are exposed to sexual violence in the media also show less sympathy toward rape victims portrayed in other contexts and are generally less able to empathize with rape victims. However, resensitization to victims after desensitization may occur given a sufficient rest period.

See also:Arousal Processes and Media Effects; Pornography; Violence in the Media, Attraction to; Violence in the Media, History of Research on.


Cline, Victor B.; Croft, Roger G.; and Courrier, Stephen. (1973). "Desensitization of Children to Television Violence." Journal of Personality and Social Psychology 27:360-365.

Foa, Edna B., and Kozak, Michael J. (1986). "Emotional Processing of Fear: Exposure to Corrective Information." Psychological Bulletin 99:20-35.

Krafka, Carol; Linz, Daniel; Donnerstein, Edward; and Penrod, Steven. (1997). "Women's Reactions to Sexually Aggressive Mass Media Depictions." Violence Against Women 3(2):149-181.

Linz, Daniel; Donnerstein, Edward; and Adams, Steven M. (1989). "Physiological Desensitization and Judgments About Female Victims of Violence." Human Communication Research 15:509-522.

Linz, Daniel; Donnerstein, Edward; and Penrod, Steven. (1984). "The Effects of Multiple Exposures to Filmed Violence Against Women." Journal of Communication 34(3):130-147.

Linz, Daniel; Donnerstein, Edward; and Penrod, Steven. (1988). "Effects of Long-Term Exposure to Violent and Sexually Degrading Depictions of Women." Journal of Personality and Social Psychology 55:758-768.

Mullin, Charles R., and Linz, Daniel. (1995). "Desensitization and Resensitization to Violence Against Women: Effects of Exposure to Sexually Violent Films on Judgments of Domestic Violence Victims." Journal of Personality and Social Psychology 69(3):449-459.

Paul, Gordon L., and Bernstein, D. A. (1973). "Anxiety and Clinical Problems: Systematic Desensitization and Related Techniques." In Behavioral Approaches to Therapy, eds. Janet T. Spence, Robert C. Carson, and John W. Thibaut. Morristown, NJ: General Learning Press.

Thomas, Margaret H. (1982). "Physiological Arousal, Exposure to a Relatively Lengthy Aggressive Film and Aggressive Behavior." Journal of Research in Personality 16:72-81.

Thomas, Margaret H.; Horton, R. W.; Lippincott, E. C.; and Drabman, R. S. (1977). "Desensitization to Portrayals of Real-Life Aggression As a Function of Exposure to Television Violence." Journal of Personality and Social Psychology 35:450-458.

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Daniel Linz