Violence in the Media, Attraction to

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Movies and television programs routinely feature violence, including everything from relatively minor scuffles to gory and gruesome encounters. The violent images in the mass media can be highly disturbing—they are often vivid and can be quite realistic. Moreover, violent depictions may produce unwanted consequences among viewers. Nevertheless, when it comes to entertainment, violence sells. Why would people knowingly expose themselves to images that are so horrific? Although this question has not received a great deal of attention, a number of theories have been offered to explain why individuals are attracted to violence in the mass media.

It should be noted that some of the theorizing that is relevant to this question comes from research that was designed to address similar, but different, issues. In fact, relatively little work has been conducted to determine what draws viewers to violent mass media. However, research does exist concerning attraction to horror films. Because horror films often include violence, research that uncovers why individuals are attracted to this content can help us understand why they are drawn to violent depictions. Nevertheless, the reader must keep in mind that some of the material reported in this entry is drawn from research that has not explored the attraction of violence per se. These deviations will be noted as they are discussed.

Theories that explain the attraction that individuals have to violent media can be grouped into two major categories: (1) those that reference the social motivations for viewing violent media and (2) those that cite the psychological processes that are responsible for viewing. In general, social motivations include viewing to obtain some kind of reward from society, such as the rewards people receive from conforming to socially appropriate roles. Psychological processes refer to the cognitive or emotional activities that lead people to view violent mass media to satisfy the demands of individual psychological makeup, such as viewing violence to satisfy one's morbid curiosity.

Social Motivations for the Viewing of Mediated Violence

Individuals are rewarded when they behave in a manner that is consistent with what society expects of them. For example, males are traditionally rewarded when they act strong, confident, and fearless, while females are rewarded when they act helpless and dependent on men. Males and females, then, may be motivated to conform to their gender roles to achieve these rewards. Some theorists argue that horror viewing provides a context in which males and females can perform their gender roles and experience the social rewards that follow. For example, when viewing a frightening film, males can act as though they are not bothered by what they see and demonstrate that they have mastered their fear. Females, on the other hand, can seek protection and cling to their male viewing partners when frightened. Because horror films often contain violence, it is possible that males and females may seek similar social gratification from viewing violent media.

Males are usually more avid viewers of violent media than females, however. Perhaps, then, the explanation offered above can only explain the popularity of violent media among males. For females, the rewards that are experienced as a result of conforming to gender roles may not compensate for the negative emotions that they experience during the viewing. In fact, research indicates that males experience more enjoyment from viewing frightening films than females do. For example, a study by Glenn Sparks (1991) showed that the more males experienced distress while viewing a film, the better they felt after viewing. However, female positive affect after viewing the frightening film was not related to levels of distress that were experienced during the viewing. Researchers suggest that the arousal that is produced from experiencing negative emotions while viewing a horror film intensifies the positive emotions that males feel when they are able to demonstrate mastery of their fears after the viewing. As a result, violent mass media may be attractive to males because it provides them with an opportunity to experience the rewards that are associated with displaying masculine qualities.

A different explanation for the attraction of males to violent mass media that also relates to social motivations is that males are taught that violence is somewhat acceptable for them and that they need to learn more about it to function properly in society. Females, on the other hand, are socialized to believe that acting violently or aggressively is not feminine. If males are taught that violence is relevant to them, then they may, as children, begin using violent media to understand better what it means to be male and how to enact male roles. Similarly, female lack of interest in violent media may stem from the fact that society will not reward females for being aggressive.

Some research suggests that gender differences in the attraction to violent media is most prominent with certain types of depictions. Specifically, in a survey by Joanne Cantor and Amy Nathanson (1997), boys were more interested than girls in television programs that featured the use of violence for a purpose, such as the restoration of justice. However, gender differences were not evident in the case of humorous, slapstick depictions of violence, such as those found in classic cartoons. These findings suggest that violence per se may not be universally attractive to males. However, violence that is used to restore justice may serve some function for boys and even adult males. Perhaps males are socialized to believe that the use of violence is acceptable to achieve justice; hence, viewing media content that features this kind of theme may help males learn how to use violence in a socially acceptable manner.

Other researchers suggest that adolescents who are poor students in school seek out violent mass media to achieve the social recognition and acceptance that they cannot gain from school. Keith Roe (1995) has argued that these adolescents create subcultures that share an interest in deviant media. Adolescent members of these subcultures gain the group membership, support, and valued identity that they are denied in other contexts. Research shows that, within samples of adolescents, there does seem to be a relationship between having a low academic standing and having an interest in violent media. It is possible, then, that the viewing of violent media may serve a social function for adolescents who have been rejected by or are unsuccessful in mainstream institutions.

Psychological Processes that Underlie the Viewing of Mediated Violence

In addition to the social motivations for the viewing of violence, individuals may seek out violence in the mass media to satisfy certain psychological needs. For example, aggressive individuals may be attracted to violent content in order to justify or to understand better their own behaviors. There is much correlational data suggesting that this explanation is correct. That is, the bulk of survey research indicates that individuals who have aggressive attitudes or behaviors are especially likely to view violence in the mass media and to choose violent content over nonviolent content. However, these kinds of data cannot rule out the alternative explanation that viewing violent media increases aggression in viewers.

Fortunately, other kinds of research have been used to gain more clarity on this issue. For example, an experiment by Allan Fenigstein (1979) demonstrated that inducing aggressive thoughts or behaviors in college-age male participants produced an increased interest in viewing violent films. In addition, a longitudinal survey by Charles Atkin and his colleagues (1979) measured children's aggression and exposure to violent television programs at two different times (with a time-span of one year between the surveys). This allowed the researchers to determine whether there was a relationship between being aggressive during the first wave of data collection and viewing violent television at the second wave of data collection, while holding prior violence viewing levels constant. In fact, Atkin and his colleagues found that children who were more aggressive during the first part of the study were more likely to watch violent programs during the second part of the study, regardless of how much violent television they had watched during the wave-one data collection. Taken together, this research suggests that adults and children who have aggressive dispositions are especially likely to seek out violence in the mass media.

Another psychological process that may underlie exposure to violent media is the subconscious desire to master one's own fears. This notion stems from a process of "repetition-compulsion" (introduced by Sigmund Freud), whereby anxious individuals are believed to select frightening stimuli repeatedly with the hopes of mastering their fears. In the context of the attraction to violent media, viewers who are particularly concerned about becoming a victim of crime or who are fearful of violence in general may expose themselves to violent material to try to lessen the intensity of their negative emotions via desensitization.

Research seems to support the notion that more anxious and fearful individuals are attracted to violent media. However, these individuals may not be equally attracted to all kinds of violent depictions. In particular, violent programs that feature happy endings in which justice is restored may be especially appealing to fearful individuals because they suggest that violent situations do not have to end in tragedy. In fact, a study by Jennings Bryant and his colleagues (1981) revealed that college students who were classified as anxious became less anxious after viewing a heavy diet of "justice-restoring" action-adventure programs. The therapeutic value of these kinds of violent programs may ultimately lead anxious individuals to purposefully select them to soothe their fears by witnessing reassuring outcomes. Some researchers have even suggested that violent media that provide happy endings may teach anxious viewers strategies for coping with violent situations. Feeling that they have gained the knowledge and skills for dealing with violence, these anxious viewers may experience some relief after viewing violent media.

Another psychological process that may underlie attraction to violent media is what many refer to as "morbid curiosity," wherein the attention of individuals seems to be innately drawn to violence. Perhaps this has evolutionary significance in that those human ancestors who paid attention to violence were more likely to survive. It is possible, then, that humans are naturally curious when it comes to violence and death. In fact, some research on horror suggests that a sheer "gore watching" motivation may be a primary reason for why individuals select horror films. For example, a survey by Deirdre Johnston (1995) found that high school students who were heavy viewers of horror films and had a preference for graphic violence reported that they were more interested than others in the way people die. Unfortunately, there are few other studies that directly speak to the possibility that the attraction to violent media is a manifestation of individuals' morbid curiosity.

Other research suggests that a host of personality traits underlie the attraction to violence in the mass media. For example, research by Ron Tamborini and James Stiff (1987) has shown that individuals who desire high levels of stimulation (often called "sensation seekers") are more likely to view graphic horror (which presumably contains violence). The fright that these films produce may be experienced as pleasure by those who crave heightened levels of arousal and new sensations. Another personality trait that is relevant to viewing media violence is empathy. In another study, Tamborini, Stiff, and Carl Heidel (1990) found that nonempathic individuals are more likely to view media violence than are individuals who readily empathize with others. It could be that their tendency to avoid placing themselves in the position of others allows these viewers to enjoy the graphic violence. However, it has also been suggested that viewers who empathize or identify with the aggressors in media violence are attracted to this content. Johnston's 1995 survey revealed that adolescents who identified with the perpetrators of violence in horror films were more likely to have the gore-watching motivation that is associated with heavy viewing of these films. By seeing the violent situations from the perspective of the aggressor, these viewers avoid sharing the victim's negative emotions and may, in fact, vicariously participate in the aggressor's "triumph."


There are a variety of reasons why individuals may purposefully seek out violent content in the mass media. They might be attracted to this material to establish or fulfill specific social roles or to set in motion certain psychological processes that bring them comfort or pleasure. It is also possible that individuals are motivated by a variety of factors simultaneously. Given these possibilities, it is not surprising that violent content is attractive to so many different people and is such a staple of media entertainment.

See also:Catharsis Theory and Media Effects; Desensitization and Media Effects; Fear and the Media; Gender and the Media; Parental Mediation of Media Effects; Violence in the Media, History of Research on.


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Amy I. Nathanson

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Violence in the Media, Attraction to

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