Media Psychology

Post image for 20 Simple Steps to the Perfect Persuasive Message

Media Psychology is a fascinating new area to explore and learn about. Throughout this topic we will examine some fascinating areas including models of attitude change and persuasion, television advertising, political campaigns that seek to persuade, government information campaigns and charity advertising; we will also examine the extent to which media imagery and representations are capable of exerting an influence on pro and anti-social behaviour, the effects of heavy usage of violent computer games (some of which have been banned) and what psychology has to say about the cult of celebrity worship which becomes so intense it tips over into stalking. Along the way we’ll look at many examples of all these areas and try to get to grips with the idea that the media are a powerful definer of social attitudes and beliefs and that many agencies in society (governments, bureaucracies, corporations, pressure groups and charities) place great store in what euphemistically Edward Bernays (Sigmund Freud’s nephew) deceptively called ‘public relations’.

Here’s an excellent introductory link:

Let’s start with Bernays and Adam Curtis’ excellent four part documentary The Century of the Self.

Here’s a review/synopsis of the documentary series from IMDB.

The Specification

1. Persuasion, attitude and change

• Persuasion and attitude change, including Hovland-Yale and Elaboration Likelihood models

• The influence of attitudes on decision making, including roles of cognitive consistency/dissonance and self-perception

• Explanations for the effectiveness of television in persuasion

2. Media influences on social behaviour

• Explanations of media influences on pro- and anti-social behaviour

• The effects of video games and computers on young people

3. The psychology of ‘celebrity’

• The attraction of ‘celebrity’, including social psychological and evolutionary explanations

• Research into intense fandom, for example, celebrity worship, stalking

1. Persuasion, attitude and change

Some things to think about by way of an introduction.

a) What are attitudes?

b) How are attitudes changed? (Think back to AS Social Psychology)

c) How is this topic similar to AS Social Psychology?

d) How does this topic differ from AS Social Psychology?

e) What is Cognitive Consistency?

f) What is Cognitive Dissonance?

g) In what ways does television seek to persuade us or change our attitudes?




Television Advertisements

Take a look at these television advertisements and identify which of the principles in the Hovland-Yale model are being used to persuade. Rate each ad on a scale of 1-5 for its level of persuasiveness 5 representing VERY PERSUASIVE, and 1 representing not at all persuasive. Can you identify any change in your own attitudes whilst watching the ads?

KEY STUDY: Meyerowitz& Chaiken(1987)

Breast self-examinations

Loss-framed pamphlet

Research shows that women who do not do Breast Self Examination have a decreased chance of finding a tumor in the early, more treatable stage of the disease

Gain-framed pamphlet

Research shows that women who do Breast Self Examination have an increased chance of finding a tumor in the early, more treatable stage of the disease

Information only pamphlet – Control Condition

The fear condition reported greater self examination than the gain condition.

What methodological and ethical considerations arise in this study?

Dual Process Models Of Attitudinal Change

There are two Models:

1. Petty and Cacioppo’s Elaboration Likelihood Model (1986)

2. Chaiken’s Systematic V Heuristic processing Model. (1980)

Both Models are very broadly similar ways of saying the same thing. We either process persuasive messages at a deep rational cognitive level or we process persuasion attempts at a more superficial level.

Need for cognition gained prominence in the literature that assumes that individuals engage in one of two modes when they process information. The heuristic-systematic model (Chaiken, 1987) and the elaboration likelihood model (Petty & Cacioppo, 1986; Petty, Cacioppo, & Schumann, 1983; Petty, Harkins, & Williams,1980; Petty, Harkins, Williams, & Latane, 1977; Petty & Wegener,1999) exemplify this assumption. According to these models, individuals sometimes evaluate the information carefully, systemically, and analytically. Alternatively, they forgo this careful analysis, instead invoking heuristics or simple principles to evaluate arguments. They might, for example, consider the credibility or confidence of a speaker.

Several factors affect the likelihood that individuals will evaluate information systematically and elaborate the considerations carefully. For example, individuals tend to evaluate issues carefully, sometimes called the central rather than peripheral route, if the issues is personally relevant (Haugtvedt & Petty, 1992). In contrast, the need for cognition represents an individual characteristic, representing an inclination to apply this central or systematic route.

Hence, when individuals exhibit a need for cognition, they are more likely to be influenced by strong rather than weak arguments. They are less biased by superficial cues, such as humor (Zhang, 1996). That is, they do not prefer humorous advertisements or purchase products promoted in these commercials.

Need for cognition also affects certainty of attitudes. Individuals who report a need for cognition process information more carefully and extensively. According to the thoughtfulness heuristic, attitudes seem more certain after individuals process information extensively. Consistent with this premise, need for cognition is related to attitude certainty (Barden & Petty, 2008).

Petty and Cacioppo’s Elaboration Likelihood Model (1986)

Vidrine, Simmons and Brandon, (2007)

The Need for Cognition (NC) in relation to the risks associated with smoking.

Participants were assessed as either high NC or low NC and then exposed to one of three conditions:

1. a factual leaflet on smoking risks;

2. an emotional leaflet on smoking risks;

3. a control condition.

What was the outcome? Explain this in terms of the elaboration likelihood model.

An alternative, but highly similar way of looking at this is to differentiate between systematic processing and heuristic processing. Systematic processing involves careful consideration of all the arguments put forward in the persuasion process, heuristic processing is more superficial and is less dependent on the quality of argument for it to be successful. Targets might yield using heuristic processing because of fairly superficial factors, sometimes unrelated to the persuasion attempt.

What superficial factors might come into play in determining the success of a persuasion attempt?

See the key study by Ito (2002) on page 394.

Other factors include discursive analysis.

The influence of attitudes on decision making.

How much does it matter if we are consistent or inconsistent in our attitudes? what impact can cognitive consistency or cognitive dissonance have on the decisions we make? Consistency theory is a theory that holds that cognitive consistency produces feelings of comfort, whereas cognitive dissonance (a clash or lack of fit) between cognitions which result in the motivational state of discomfort.

Any two or more cognitions will have the following possible relationships between them

1. Consonant.

2. Dissonant.

3. Irrelevant.

Festinger (1957) argues that when we experience cognitive dissonance this produces feelings of discomfort which we are motivated to resolve.

Research Study: Festinger and Carlsmith (1959)

In an intriguing experiment, Festinger and Carlsmith (1959) asked participants to perform a series of dull tasks (such as turning pegs in a peg board for an hour). As you can imagine, participant’s attitudes toward this task were highly negative. They were then paid either $1 or $20 to tell a waiting participant (relay a confederate) that the tasks were really interesting. Almost all of the participants agreed to walk into the waiting room and persuade the subject accomplice that the boring experiment would be fun.

Aim: Festinger and Carlsmith (1959) investigated if making people perform a dull task would create cognitive dissonance through forced compliance behaviour.

Method: In their laboratory experiment, they used 71 male students as participants to perform a series of dull tasks (such as turning pegs in a peg board for an hour).

They were then paid either $1 or $20 to tell a waiting participant (a confederate) that the tasks were really interesting. Almost all of the participants agreed to walk into the waiting room and persuade the confederate that the boring experiment would be fun.

Results: When the participants were asked to evaluate the experiment, the participants who were paid only $1 rated the tedious task as more fun and enjoyable than the participants who were paid $20 to lie.

Conclusion: Being paid only $1 is not sufficient incentive for lying and so those who were paid $1 experienced dissonance. They could only overcome that dissonance by coming to believe that the tasks really were interesting and enjoyable. Being paid $20 provides a reason for turning pegs and there is therefore no dissonance.

Post Decisional Dissonance


After we have made a decision, we will feel dissonance regarding the possibility of it being wrong. We will often change our perceptions to reduce this dissonance and make the decision seem more attractive.

This is the basis of the foot-in-the-door technique where people who are asked to make a small commitment (such as signing a petition) will later change their views to align with the action and consequently be more amenable to a more significant request. It is also the basis of brainwashing.


Brehm (1956) asked shoppers to rate the attractiveness of household appliances. They were then allowed to choose, as a gift, between two appliances they had rated equally attractive. Twenty minutes later, they were asked to re-evaluate the appliances. Guess what? They now rated their gift somewhat more highly.

Knox and Inkster (1968) found that after placing a $2 bet, race-goers increased their estimation as to the likelihood of their horse winning the race.

Selective Exposure Hypothesis

See? I told you I was right!

“It is crucial that communication scholars arrive at a more comprehensive and deeper understanding of consumer selectivity if we are to have any hope of mastering entertainment theory in the next iteration of the information age. Essentially, understanding selective-exposure theory is a prerequisite for constructing a useful psychology of entertainment.”

Bryant and Davies, 200

Selective exposure theory is a theory of communication, positing that individuals prefer exposure to arguments supporting their position over those supporting other positions.

People tend to engage in information that comforts and agrees with their own ideas and as a result, they avoid information that argues against their opinion.

People don’t want to be told that they are wrong and they do not want their ideas to be challenged either.

Therefore, in the context of media psychology, they select different media outlets that agree with their opinions so they do not come in contact with this form of dissonance. Furthermore, these people will select the media sources that agree with their opinions and attitudes on different subjects and then only follow those programs.

Cooper and Fazio’s four steps to resolving dissonance

Another modification to Festinger’s original theory came from Joel Cooper and Russell Fazio, who elaborated on the concept that dissonance would lead to attitude change by creating a four-step process to display the patterns that lead to that change:

1. The individual must realize that the attitude-discrepant action has negative consequences.

2. The individual must take personal responsibility for the action.

3. The individual must experience physiological arousal.

4. The individual must attribute the arousal to the action.
(Cooper & Fazio, 1984)

The two scientists argued that all four of these steps must occur for true dissonance to be present.  An example would be if I was an animal rights supporter and I was to take a job as the head of advertising at McDonald’s.  I would quickly come to the realization that I would be trying to lure customers towards eating meat, which I am opposed to. Knowing that I could have turned down the job and finished my degree in Spanish at the local university, I begin to stay awake at night wondering what I took this job for, and it makes me sick to my stomach.  That nausea must be coming from the fact that I am working a job that goes against everything I believe in as far as animal rights and multi-national corporations.  Do I quit the job and go back to the university, tail between my legs?  No way! The money at McDonalds is more in one year than I could earn in ten years as a Spanish professor, so I begin to adjust my attitude to cut down on the sleepless nights.  Okay, McDonalds is killing off animals and rainforest at a quicker rate than anyone would care to know about, and maybe they are ripping off the minimum wage employees and getting rich quick off of the public indifference towards their operational standards, but that’s the way of the corporate American world, which is going to end eventually anyway (we are all going to end someday…) and I will be retired in Australia living off all the investments I made with the money from my job at McDonalds, and hey- they really do have better French fries.  Once I have been through Cooper and Fazio’s four steps, I feel much better.

Bem’s Self Perception Theory

Self-perception theory (SPT) is an account of attitude change developed by psychologist Daryl Bem.[1][2] It asserts that people develop their attitudes by observing their behaviour and concluding what attitudes must have caused them. The theory is counterintuitive in nature, as the conventional wisdom is that attitudes come prior to behaviors. Furthermore, the theory suggests that a person induces attitudes without accessing internal cognition and mood states.[3] The person reasons their own overt behaviors rationally in the same way they attempt to explain others’ behaviors.

The Influence of Television on Persuasion

Television has been the most dominant mass medium for over sixty years, drawing in mass audiences both nationally and internationally. Primarily consumed as an entertainment medium, it is also used to educate and inform. Theorists such as Chomsky argue that television (and other media) are owned and controlled by elites with the aim of “manufacturing consent” and keeping populations docile and under control.

Television based attempts at persuasion are particularly powerful. Audio Visual messages are held to be most effective when the targets of the influence (the audience) use peripheral or heuristic processing. Moving images accompanied by the right sounds can be particularly evocative and emotional. Television is still able to capture large audiences, despite the proliferation and new media and its popularity amongst younger audiences. The following four forms of television based influence rely on a variation of the Hovland-Yale sequential model of persuasion.

Principal One: Capture the Audiences Attention

Principal Two: Comprehension

Principal Three: Create a favourable association

Principal Four: Make it memorable

1. Advertising Campaigns.

Advertising is a form of communication intended to persuade an audience (viewers, readers or listeners) to purchase or take some action upon products, ideas, or services. It includes the name of a product or service and how that product or service could benefit the consumer, to persuade a target market to purchase or to consume that particular brand. These messages are usually paid for by sponsors and viewed via various media. Advertising can also serve to communicate an idea to a large number of people in an attempt to convince them to take a certain action.

Commercial advertisers often seek to generate increased consumption of their products or servicesthrough branding, which involves the repetition of an image or product name in an effort to associate related qualities with the brand in the minds of consumers. Non-commercial advertisers who spend money to advertise items other than a consumer product or service include political parties, interest groups, religious organizations and governmental agencies.

2. Political Campaigns.

Political campaigning is primarily about communicating a message that appeals to the widest constituency possible. This means that in order to appeal to voters politicians and political parties focus on the centrist ground and make appeals to nation, family, aspiration, change, and the future.

All pretty vague stuff, but if communicated in the right way such messages can be extremely potent. This is the marker Obama laid down in 2004, as he set his sights on the Presidency in 2008. This is political campaigning and speech making at its best.

Denigration also works very well. This is perhaps the most infamous negative political advertisement of all time.

Recent British Political Campaigns

3. Attitude Campaigns.


Television Based Charity Appeals.

Controversial Print Campaigns

Explanations of Media Influence On Social Behaviour





The late 1950s and early 1960s produced a growing concern over the portrayals of violence on television, and its potential effects, particularly on the behaviour of children. While the majority of the literature has focused on the effects of viewing violent behaviour, there has been a substantial number of studies that have provided evidence for the potential value of the media for the development and expression of pro-social behaviour. These studies have demonstrated that children imitate forms of pro-social behaviour such as altruism, helping, delay of gratification and positive interaction with others when exposed to models who display such behaviours. Hearold (1986), carried out a meta-analysis (a statistical review) of over 100 studies of the pro-social effects of television and found that:

‘Although fewer studies exist on pro-social effects, the effect size is so much larger, holds up better under more stringent experimental conditions and is consistently higher for both boys and girls, that the potential for pro-social overrides the small but persistent effects of antisocial programmes.’

(Hearold 1986, p135)

Comstock (1989) has explained Hearold’s findings thus: pro-social messages are generally designed to have an influence on viewers, whereas antisocial messages are not specifically designed for that purpose. One of the problems faced by researchers is that if television is to teach socially acceptable attitudes and behaviours, these messages must be conveyed effectively or pro-social programmes will fail to achieve their goals (Yates 1999). If a message is not understood, then any effort to teach pro-social behaviour in this way is futile. Lovelace and Huston (1983) have identified three modelling strategies used by researchers for the transmission of pro-social messages:


Although these strategies have the potential to have a pro-social effect on adults, most of the attention has been directed towards their effect on children. Each of these strategies is based on social learning theory, which holds that viewing modelled behaviours, particularly if the consequences of such behaviours are personally desirable, results in an imitation of those behaviours.  We will turn to these different strategies.


Research using this strategy has focused on media models who show pro-social or courageous behaviour.  In one such study (Bryan and Bryan 1970), 6- to 9-year-old children were shown a specially recorded film of a character bowling and winning gift certificates. In one version of the film the character gave some of his gift certificates to charity, in the other he kept them for himself. In some conditions of the study he also preached the merits of giving to charity. After watching the film, children were placed in a similar situation, and observed to see if they too would give to charity. Results showed that those children who had seen the character being generous were also likely to display generosity, whilst those who saw him behave selfishly were less generous in their own donations. Interestingly, it was the actions of the character that were most influential, as his words made little difference to how the children behaved. However, later research by Rushton and Owen (1975) suggested that the effects of such pro-social manipulations of children’s generosity tend to wear off in a week or two.

Several other studies have also demonstrated the positive effects of pro-social models on television on children’s helping behaviour. Sprafkin, Liebert, and Poulos (1975) studied 6-year-olds. Some of these children watched an episode of Lassie, in which a boy was seen to risk his life in order to rescue a puppy from a mine shaft.

Other groups of children saw a different episode of Lassie, in which no helping was involved, or they saw an episode of a situation comedy called The Brady Bunch. After watching the programme, all of the children had the chance to help some distressed puppies. However, to do so they had to stop playing a game in which they might have won a big prize. The children who had watched the rescue from the mineshaft spent an average of over 90 seconds helping the puppies, compared with under 50 seconds by the children who had watched the other programmes. This shows that they imitated specific acts they had seen.

In particular, these studies have found that children’s willingness to help can be increased through viewing a televised example of a specific pro-social behaviour. This supports the predictions of social learning theory, that the effects of a televised example will be mediated by specific modelling cues rather than the general pro-social format of the show.


From their review of studies that had used this approach, Lovelace and Huston (1983) concluded that television extracts that contained only a pro-social message were effective in producing pro-social behaviour in viewers.

Programmes made in this way have the advantage of presenting pro-social messages clearly and unambiguously. However, disadvantages include the reliance on brief segments that are often produced specially for use in a laboratory setting.

The measures of pro-sociality are likewise taken in an artificial and contrived environment, limiting their application to children’s behaviour in real-life settings. Thus, generalisations to other situations may be limited.

It is also evident that many of the effects that have been produced by these interventions have been very short-lived (Rushton and Owen 1975).

The value of pro-social programmes can, however, be demonstrated clinically. Specially prepared television material can help lonely, self-conscious children to make friends more readily. Children who have difficulty getting on with their peers can watch fictional scenarios in which they see how to mix with others in various social situations (O’Connor 1969, cited in Gunter and McAleer 1997).


Television programmes that present only pro-social behaviour are rare. Typically, pro-social behaviour is presented alongside or in contrast to antisocial behaviour. Several studies have investigated the effectiveness of pro-social messages when they are presented in this context.

Paulson (1974) investigated the effects of modelling pro-social alongside antisocial behaviour. This was part of a Sesame Street programme designed to teach co-operation (a pro-social behaviour).

Findings of this study, which took place over a six-month period, indicated that children who saw the programmes recognised co-operation when they saw it, and subsequently scored higher on measures of co-operation compared to children who had not seen the programmes. Unfortunately, the researchers found no evidence of an increase in the general level of these children’s pro-social behaviour during free play.  Experiments involving Mr Rogers’ Neighbourhood have demonstrated that pre-school children do show significant increases in pro-social behaviours such as nurturance and co-operation when the show is used as part of an intervention programme for children from low socio-economic backgrounds (Friedrich and Stein 1973).  A US television series designed to reduce sex-role stereotypes among children has been shown to be particularly effective in changing children’s stereotypical beliefs about males and females. In Freestyle, characters initially choose to perform a non-stereotypic sex-role behaviour, but are faced with difficulties as a result. In the end, the character manages to master the non-stereotypic behaviour, overcomes the difficulties and is rewarded for so doing (Johnston and Ettema 1986).


Lovelace and Huston (1983) conclude from the research literature for studies using this strategy that pro-social behaviour may be learned in this way, but these behaviours tend not to be generalised to children’s everyday behaviour. Short segments of instruction, such as those portrayed in Sesame Street have been shown to be useful for cognitive learning, but dramatic story lines, such as those in Mr Rogers’ Neighbourhood and Freestyle are more effective in helping children generalise the pro-social behaviours they model to their own life.

It is also possible that children might adopt the antisocial behaviours that are modelled alongside the pro-social behaviours in such programmes. In fact, some research studies have found increases in assertiveness and aggression when children have been exposed to Mr Rogers’ Neighbourhood as part of a ‘Headstart’ intervention programme (Friedrich-Cofer et al. 1979). It appears that the conflict resolution strategy is more effective when the greater proportion of a programme is devoted to pro-social behaviour and when discussion and post viewing rehearsal of the behaviours is possible (Yates1999).

Lovelace and Huston (1983) also observed that negative effects might occur if the pro-social behaviours were not shown in clear contrast to the antisocial behaviours. A study by  Liss and Reinhardt (1979) supported this conclusion. They found an increase in aggressive behaviour in children who had watched a cartoon series Superfriends. Although both pro-social and antisocial behaviours were modelled in this series, characters usually demonstrated some justification for their aggressive behaviour, and so legitimized it for those watching.


In the third type of modelling strategy, unresolved conflicts are presented to children via the media.  Programme content frequently deals with problems that are likely to be encountered when growing up, such as parental pressure, male/female relationships, privacy and friendship. A character is seen as struggling with a particular problem (for example, should she continue seeing someone of whom her parents clearly disapprove), but no decision is made. Children are encouraged to discuss how they would resolve the problem faced by the central character. Conflicts such as these, as well as many of the less pleasant aspects of growing up (bullying, divorce, death of a loved one), are frequently presented to young viewers through the medium of the soaps.


Some research has indicated that children do understand and learn the programme content and are able to generate pro-social rather than antisocial solutions to the problems faced in the plot (Rockman 1980).

Other studies have indicated limited potential for pro-social change with this kind of programme, and that children younger than 8 might not benefit from this type of modelling as effectively as older children (Lovelace and Huston 1983).

Media Influences on Pro-social Behaviour Summary

The effects of television can be positive, and can lead to pro-social behaviour. In the same way that seeing people behaving violently on television can produce violent behaviour in viewers so seeing people behaving in a caring way can increase caring behaviour. The psychological principles underpinning the two processes should be the same.

Research evidence

Increased pro-social or helping behaviour as a result of watching television programmes has been found in children of various ages. Friedrich and Stein (1973) studied American pre-school children, who watched episodes of a pro-social television programme called Mister Rogers’ Neighbourhood. These children remembered much of the pro-social information contained in the programmes, and they behaved in a more helpful and co- operative way than did children who watched other television programmes with neutral or aggressive content. They became even more helpful if they role-played pro-social events from the programmes.

Baran (1979) studied older children between the ages of 8 and 10. These children watched an episode of The Waltons, in which there was much emphasis on helping behaviour. Conflicts were always resolved with a greater understanding and mutual respect.

These children were then found to behave in a more helpful or pro-social way than other children who had not seen the programme.


There are TWO MAIN limitations with such research:

Duration of effect

Hearold (1986) reviewed more than 100 studies on the effects of pro-social television programmes on children’s behaviour. She concluded that such programmes do generally make children behave in more helpful ways. Indeed the beneficial effects of pro-social programmes on pro-social behaviour were on average almost twice as great as the adverse effects of television violence on aggressive behaviour. However, helping behaviour was usually assessed shortly after watching a pro-social television programme. It is not altogether clear whether pro-social television programmes can have long-term effects on children’s pro-social behaviour. In a study by Sagotsky, Wood-Schneider, and Konop (1981), children of 6 and 8 saw co-operative behaviour being modelled. Children of both ages showed an immediate increase in co-operative behaviour. However, only the 8-year-olds continued to show increased co-operation seven weeks later. Evidence that observational learning from a film can produce beneficial longer-term changes in behaviour was reported by O’Connor (1980). Children who avoided playing with other children were shown a film of children playing happily together. Every child who saw the film played more with other children afterwards, and this effect seemed to last for a long time.


Lovelace and Huston (1983) suggested that learning from pro-social programmes is often  situation-specific. In order to make the effects more generalised it is necessary to show ordinary people m a variety of everyday situations working together, helping each other and being sensitive to each other. Dramatic story formats appear better suited than brief didactic scenes for influencing children’s behaviour. Discussion with children after viewing and related play can enhance the effects of the TV programme.


Believe it or not, this is loved by successive generations of children.

‘There can be no longer any doubt that heavy television violence is one of the causes of aggressive behaviour, crime and violence … Television violence affects youngsters of all ages, of both genders at all socio-economic levels and all levels of intelligence The causal effect of television violence on aggression even though it is not large, exists.’

(Eron 1992)

What, then, can be seen as the “different” factor that has entered the lives of countless children and adolescents in recent years? This has to be recognised as the easy availability to children of gross images of violence on video.’

(Newson 1994)

Both these quotes reflect a long standing concern from some psychologists that the media are instrumental in stimulating anti –social behaviour in some sections of the audience through violent imagery and representations. There is some evidence which supports this argument.


Robinson and Bachman (1972) found a relationship between the amount of television viewed and adolescent self-reports of involvement in aggressive or antisocial behaviour.

Phillips (1983) investigated the effects of the portrayal of suicides in television soap operas on the suicide rate in the United States using death records compiled by the National Centre for Health Statistics.  He found, over a six-year period, that whenever a major soap opera character committed suicide on TV, within three days there was a significant increase in the number of female suicides across the USA.

Although these studies suggest a link between watching television violence and engaging in violent behaviour, they do not demonstrate a causal relationship between the two. To investigate this, psychologists must choose methods which give them more control over the conditions in which violence is viewed and the behavioural measurement of violence.


Bandura et al. (1963) (see In Focus, p. 256) showed that children who had viewed an aggressive model on film were more aggressive in their play than those who had not observed the aggressive model. Early studies such as this were criticized on the grounds that the aggressive behaviour was not meaningful within the social context and that the stimulus materials were not representative of available television programming.

Liebert and Baron (1972) investigated young children’s willingness to hurt another child after viewing videotaped sections of aggressive or neutral television programmes. The boys and girls were in two age groups: 5 to 6, and 8 to 9. The aggressive programme consisted of segments of The Untouchables, while the neutral programme featured an athletics race. The main findings were that the children who viewed the aggressive programme demonstrated a greater willingness to hurt another child.

It is clear from experimental studies such as these that we can produce an increase in aggressive behaviour following a fairly brief exposure to televised violence, but the question remains over whether the heightened aggression observed in the laboratory would spill over into everyday life. To investigate this it is necessary to study the impact of violence in the media in more natural settings.


Concerns about external (ecological) validity have stimulated researchers to employ field experiments.  Field experiments retain the advantages of experimental design, but avoid the problem of demand cues since subjects do not usually know they are being studied. In the typical field experiment, the investigator presents television programmes in the normal viewing setting and observes behaviour where it naturally occurs. The investigator typically controls the television diet of the participants by arranging a special series of programmes.

Stein and Friedrich (1972) presented 97 pre-school children with a diet of either ‘antisocial’, ‘pro-social’ or ‘neutral’ television programmes during a four-week viewing period. The antisocial diet consisted of 12 half-hour episodes of Batman and Superman cartoons.

The pro-social diet was composed of 12 episodes of Mr Rogers’ Neighbourhood (a programme that stresses such themes as sharing possessions and co-operative play). The neutral diet consisted of children’s programming which was neither violent nor pro-social. The children were observed through a nine-week period, which consisted of three weeks of pre-viewing baseline, four weeks of television exposure and two weeks of post-viewing follow-up.

All observations were conducted in a naturalistic setting while the children engaged in daily school activities. The observers recorded various forms of behaviour that could be regarded as pro-social (helping, sharing, co-operative play) or antisocial (i.e. pushing, arguing and breaking toys). The overall results indicated that children who were judged to be initially somewhat aggressive became significantly more so as a result of viewing the Batman and Superman cartoons. Moreover, the children who had viewed the pro-social diet of Mr Rogers’ Neighbourhood were less aggressive, more co-operative and more willing to share with other children.


One of the more thorough studies of physical and verbal aggression was reported by Leyens et al. (1975). The participants were juvenile delinquents at a school in Belgium. They lived in four dormitories, two of which had high levels of aggressive behaviour and two of which had low levels.

During a special Movie Week, boys in two of the dormitories watched only violent films whereas the other two dormitories watched only non-violent films. There was an increased level of physical aggression among the boys who saw the violent films, but not among those who saw the non-violent films. The findings were more complex for verbal aggression. This increased among boys in the aggressive dormitory who saw violent films, but it actually decreased among boys from the non-aggressive

The results of field experiments have been examined in at least three meta-analyses. Hearold’s (1986) revealed an effect for laboratory experiments but no effect for field experiments. Wood etal.’s meta-analysis (1991) found that adolescents and child participants engaged in more aggression following exposure to violent films, while in seven studies participants in the control group engaged in more aggression. In five of the studies there was no difference between control and experimental groups.


These studies take advantage of the fact that television was introduced at different times in different locations.  They assume that people who are exposed to television will also be exposed to a high dose of television violence. This is probably a reasonable assumption given the extremely high correlation between television viewing and exposure to television violence (Milavsky et al.1982).

Hennigan et al. (1982) compared crime rates in American cities that already had television with those that did not. No effect of the presence or absence of television was found on violent crime rates in a comparison of the two kinds of cities.  Furthermore, when cities without television obtained it, there was no increase in violent crime.  There was an increase in the incidence of robberies, which the authors attributed to the relative deprivation suffered by viewers observing affluent people on television.

Williams (1986) had the opportunity to evaluate the impact of televised violence on the behaviour of children before and after the introduction of television in a Canadian community. They compared children living in the before/after television town with their peers in two other towns where television was well established. The three towns were called Notel (no television reception), Unitel (receiving only the government-owned commercial channel, CBC) and Multitel (receiving the CBC and three American commercial networks).  Children in all three towns were evaluated at Time 1 when Notel did not receive a television signal and again at Time 2 when Notel had had television for two years (it had received CBC). Results indicated that there were no differences across the three towns at Time 1, but at Time 2 the children from the former Notel town were significantly more aggressive, both physically and verbally, than the children in the Unitel or Multitel towns. Moreover, only children in the Notel town manifested any significant increase in physical and verbal aggression from Time 1 to Time 2.

The methodological limitations of such studies make it difficult to have confidence in a causal inference about media effects. The substantial differences between the comparison groups increase the risk that the relationship between the introduction of television and increases in aggression is spurious.


Eron et al (1982) and reported on a major longitudinal study. First of all, amount of television watched and levels of aggressiveness were assessed in some young children. Then aggressivness and the amount of television watched were reassess (in the same participants several years later. One of the (findings was that the amount of television violence watched at a young age predicted the level of aggressiveness (measured by the number of criminal convictions by the age of 30).

This suggests that watching television violence may be one of the causes of aggressive behaviour. In addition, there was evidence that children who were aggressive when young tended to watch more violent television programmes several years later. This suggests that more aggressive individuals choose to watch more violent television programmes. We get a clearer picture about the extent of television violence effects when we examine exposure over a much longer period. The long-term influence of television has not been extensively investigated but there is evidence from several major studies.

Lefkowitz et al. (1972) were able to demonstrate long-term effects in a group of children followed up over a ten-year period. In an initial study, researchers had previously demonstrated a relationship between preference for violent media and the aggressive behaviour of these children at the age of 8.

The investigators obtained peer-rated measures of aggressive behaviour and preferences for various kinds of television, radio and comic books when the children were 8 years old. Ten years later, when the members of the group were 18 years old, the investigators again obtained measures of aggressive behaviour and television programme preferences. The results for boys indicated that preference for television violence at age 8 was significantly related to aggression at age 8, but that preference for television violence at age 18 was not related to aggression at age 18.

A second important finding was the significant relationship, for boys, between preference for violent media at age 8 and aggressive behaviour at age 18. Preference for violent television programmes at 18, however, was not related to aggressive behaviour in early childhood.

A study by Belson (1978) helped to pin down which types of programme would have the most influence.  Belson interviewed 1,565 youths who were a representative sample of 13- to 17-year-old boys living in London. These boys were interviewed on several occasions concerning the extent of their exposure to a selection of violent television programmes broadcast during the period 1959 to 1971. The level and type of violence in these programmes were rated by members of the BBC viewing panel. It was thus possible to obtain, for each boy, a measure of both the magnitude and type of exposure to televised violence (realistic, fictional, etc.). When Belson compared the behaviour of boys who had higher exposure to televised violence to those who had a lower exposure, he found that the high-violence viewers were more involved in serious violent behaviour. Moreover, he found that serious interpersonal violence is increased by the long-term exposure to:

  • plays or films in which personal relationships are a major theme and which feature verbal or physical violence
  • programmes in which violence seems to be thrown in for its own sake or is not necessary to the plot
  • programmes featuring fictional violence of a realistic nature
  • programmes in which the violence is presented as being in a good cause
  • violent westerns.

While the effects of television violence are not simple and straightforward, meta-analyses and reviews of a large body of research suggest that there are clear reasons for concern and caution about the impact of televised violence. There are many factors that moderate the relationship between viewing violence and aggressive behaviour.

A study by Brown and Pennell (1998) discovered some of these important moderating variables. This study was interested not in the simple question of whether television influenced violent behaviour, but in the reasons why sometimes it did and sometimes it did not. Groups of offenders and non-offenders were shown a violent film and then monitored over a ten-month period after the film. The main results were as follows:

  • Offenders spent longer watching video films than non-offenders. Violent offenders were more likely than non-violent offenders to prefer violent films.
  • Ten months after viewing a violent video, twice as many offenders as non-offenders recalled and identified with vindictively violent characters.
  • Offenders had a lower level of moral development than non-offenders, were less able to empathise with others, and were more likely to have aggressive temperaments and distorted perceptions about violence.

The findings suggest that individuals from violent families are more prone to offending behaviour and having a preference for violent films. Studies such as this suggest that although media violence may be demonstrated to have an effect in some people, this is more a result of other factors related to the viewers themselves. These include an individual’s perception of and preference for violence; level of the viewer’s moral development and their family background.


It is hard to evaluate the effects of television violence on aggressive behaviour. Many of the studies are limited in scope focusing only on the short-term effects on behaviour of exposure to a single violent programme. Such studies can tell us little or nothing about the long-term effects of prolonged exposure to violent programmes. The somewhat inconclusive nature of the evidence was summarised as follows by Gunter and McAleer (1990)

“the measurement of television’s effects … .is highly complex … we are still a long way from knowing fully the extent and character of television’s influence on children’s aggressive behaviour. “

Wood, Wong, and Chachere (1991) reviewed 28 laboratory and field studies concerned with the effects of media violence on aggression in children and adolescents. It was found in both laboratory and field studies that exposure to media violence led to more aggressive behaviour towards strangers, classmates, and friends. In general, the effects were stronger under laboratory conditions.

Comstock and Paik (1991) reviewed more than 1000 findings on the effects of media violence. There are generally strong short-term effects, especially with respect to minor acts of aggression. In addition, there seem to be rather weaker long-term effects. They concluded that there are five factors that tend to increase the effects of media violence on aggression:

1.     Violent behaviour is presented as being an efficient way to get what one wants.

2.     The person who is behaving violently is portrayed as similar to the viewer.

3.     Violent behaviour is presented in a realistic way rather than, for example, in cartoon form.

4.     The suffering of the victims of violence is not shown.

5.     The viewer is emotionally excited while watching the violent behaviour.

Individual differences

A key issue is the extent to which all people are affected by violence on television. It maybe that people with aggressive personalities are more drawn to such programmes and therefore the observed effects of television violence are an effect rather than a cause of aggressive tendencies.

A second explanation is that only certain vulnerable individuals are affected by such violence. Most people can watch violence without significantly increased aggressiveness. However, theories of aggression tell us that some people become predisposed to aggression because of frustration, personality characteristics, or perhaps other environmental factors such as heat.

In such circumstances violence on television might lead to increased interpersonal aggression. One particular group of vulnerable individuals are children, who may have as yet unformed personalities and are especially susceptible to the effects of disinhibition, desensitisation, and socially mediated models. This is why, of course, we prefer young people not to watch violence in the media.



Another reason why media violence may play a part in producing aggressive behaviour is because of cognitive priming. The basic idea is that the aggressive cues presented in violent television programmes lead to aggressive thoughts and feelings. When college students were asked to write down their thoughts while watching violent films they reported numerous aggressive thoughts/ increased anger, and a high level of physiological arousal. Some of the most convincing evidence for the importance of cognitive priming was reported by Josephson (1987). Some Canadian boys were shown a television programme involving violence in the form of a gun battle in which the snipers communicated with each other by means of walkie-talkies. The other boys watched a non-violent programme about a motor-cross team. After they had watched the television programme, all of the boys played floor hockey Before the game started, the referee gave the boys instructions either by walkie-talkie or in a tape recording. The boys who watched the violent programme and received instructions by walkie-talkie were more aggressive during the hockey game than were the boys who had watched the same programme but received instructions by tape recording. Thus, the walkie-talkie acted as a cognitive prime or cue to aggression. The same principle could be applied to pro-social behaviour.

Aggressive ideas in violent films can activate other aggressive thoughts in viewers through their association in memory pathways (Berkowitz 1984).  Immediately after a violent film, the viewer is primed to respond aggressively because a network of memories involving aggression is retrieved. Huesmann (1982) suggests that children learn problem-solving scripts in part from their observations of others’ behaviour. These scripts are cognitive expectations about a sequence of behaviours that may be performed in particular situations. Frequent exposure to scenes of violence may lead children to store scripts for aggressive behaviour in their memories, and these may be recalled in a later situation if any aspect of the original situation – even a superficial one – is present.


According to Bandura’s social learning theory one of the factors in media influence will be observational learning or modelling. We learn ways of behaving aggressively or altruistically from observing people on television behaving in this manner, and this behaviour may be imitated subsequently. This is especially likely if the behaviours are reinforced and/or the observer identifies with the characters on television/ either because they are similar in terms of gender or age/ or because they are admired. This might lead us to question the extent to which we may imitate cartoon characters as we are unlikely to identify with them.

There are a variety of reasons why one might expect viewers to learn aggressive behaviour from the media (Bandura 1986). Bandura has argued that television can shape the forms that aggressive behaviour takes. Television can teach skills that may be useful for committing acts of violence, and it can direct the viewer’s attention to behaviours that they may not have considered. For example, young people may mimic martial arts moves, or they may learn effective tactics for committing violent crime. There is frequent anecdotal evidence that bizarre violent events have followed soon after their depiction on television, suggesting a form of copycat behaviour.

Bandura also suggested that television might inform viewers of the positive and negative consequences of violent behaviour. Audiences can be expected to imitate violent behaviour that is successful in gaining the model’s objectives in fictional or nonfictional programmes. When violence is justified or left unpunished on television, the viewer’s guilt or concern about consequences is reduced. It is not at all clear, however, what message is learned from viewing violence on television. In most plots, the hero uses violence for legitimate ends while the villain engages in illegitimate violence. The consequences of the illegitimate violence portrayed in fictional television and film are more negative than the consequences of illegitimate violence in real life. In real life, violent people often evade punishment, while in television the villain is almost always punished. Thus, one could argue that television violence might reduce the incidence of criminal violence, since crime doesn’t pay for TV criminals.

Bandura (1986) claims that television distorts knowledge about the dangers and threats present in the real world. Research shows that heavy television viewers are more distrustful of others and overestimate their chances of being criminally victimized (Gunter 1994) The assumption is that these fears will lead viewers to perceive threats that do not exist and to respond aggressively. It is just as plausible, however that such fears would lead viewers to avoid aggressive behaviour against others, if they feel it is dangerous If viewing television violence increases fear it might decrease the level of violence.


The effect of cartoons may be explained in terms of disinhibition. Much of the time we exert conscious control over our behaviour/ and feel we should inhibit behaviours that are seen to be anti-social. High levels of violence in the media promote the view that such behaviour is common and acceptable, and this reduces our normal inhibitions about behaving in this way. For example, you watch a scene that shows a son hitting his father when the father says the son must stay home, and this decreases your normal inhibitions about behaving in such a way. This applies generally to anti-social rather than pro-social behaviour, but we might imagine that where people normally feel inhibited about helping in an emergency situation, portrayal of such behaviour in a television programme might disinhibit us in future. For example, normally we would feel inhibited about stepping in between two lovers having a quarrel, but a programme on television that showed how this may have been helpful might reduce our normal inhibitions, i.e., it would disinhibit us.

·                DESENSITISATION

Desensitisation is a different concept from disinhibition. Here it is suggested that violent acts reduce our responsiveness. As Franzoi (1996) pointed out we gradually become less responsive to and emotionally concerned by, acts of violence because we have seen so many on television. In a study by Thomas et al. (1977) two groups of children watched a videotape of young children behaving aggressively. Their physiological reactions to this videotape were recorded. Those children who had seen a television programme containing much violence just before watching the videotape became less aroused physiologically than did those who had just watched a programme containing no violence.

This argument assumes that anxiety about violence inhibits its use. Frequent viewing of television violence may cause viewers to be less anxious and sensitive about violence Therefore, someone who becomes desensitised to violence may perceive it as more ‘normal’ and be more likely to engage in violence themselves However, if viewers are exposed to a heavy diet of television violence, one might also argue that they will be less aroused by violence and therefore less likely to engage in violent behaviour themselves If viewers become desensitised to violent behaviour on television, they may become indifferent to its message. Desensitisation could therefore weaken the effect of a heavy diet of television violence

Psychological research into media effects has tended to represent young media users as

‘the inept victims of products, which … can trick children into all kinds of ill-advised behaviour’

(Gauntlett 1998).

Research which seeks to establish exactly what children can and do understand about the media has shown that children are able to talk intelligently (and cynically) about the media (Buckingham 1996) and that children as young as 7 are able to make thoughtful, critical and ‘media literate’ productions themselves.

Whilst it is undoubtedly true that gratuitous depictions of violence could be seen as unpleasant and unnecessary, it cannot be assumed that violence is always shown for ‘bad reasons’ or in an uncritical light.

Because effective studies of media effects require significant amounts of time and money, many studies are limited to much simpler investigations which are usually characterized by elements of artificiality. Some of these studies take place in a laboratory setting or in a ‘natural’ setting where the researcher has conspicuously manipulated some aspect of the viewing environment. Research participants are then shown specially selected or recorded clips, which lack the narrative meaning present in everyday TV productions.  Many other studies that do not rely on experimental manipulations show inconsistencies and contradictions in their interpretation of the data they have achieved.  For example, Eron et al. (1972) found that the media had a marginal effect for boys but no effect for girls, yet a study by the same researchers (Huesmann e tal. 1984) found the exact opposite (no effect on boys, but a small effect on girls). Another misuse of methodology comes about when studies which merely show a correlation between two factors are treated as if one has caused the other.

The kinds of media violence which are typically condemned by the effects model are limited to fictional programmes. The acts of violence that appear daily on our television screens on news programmes are somehow exempt from this condemnation. There is an inconsistency to this argument. If the antisocial acts that are shown in television drama have such a profound effect on viewers, it is puzzling that the antisocial activities that are so frequently in the news and other documentaries do not have similar effects. This is even more puzzling when we consider the fact that in fictional drama, the majority of antisocial acts have negative consequences for the perpetrator, but in documentary depictions of violent acts there are few apparent negative consequences for those who perform them.

The basic question of why the media should induce people to imitate its content has never been answered.  Likewise, the question of how merely seeing a violent act in the media would prompt an individual to behave in a similar way is just as unresolved, particularly as violent acts in the media more often than not produce negative consequences for the perpetrator.

The lack of a firm theory that might explain why the media would have such effects has led to the effects model being based on the variety of assumptions detailed above – that the media (not violent people) should be the starting point for research; that children will be unable to ‘cope’ with violent media; that the model’s predictions are verifiable by scientific research; that screen fiction is of concern whilst news pictures are not. Each of these assumptions has been shown to be problematic and has exposed the failure of media effects commentators to embed their model in any coherent theory (Gauntlett 1998).

3 main points emerge:

1. There is inconsistency in the evidence.

2. There are methodological problems.

3. Fictionalised television violence is the cause of much concern but real depictions of violence in the news for example are not. (Gauntlett, 1998)

·                STEREOTYPES

Another means by which the media influence our behaviour is through the use of stereotypes. All media need to communicate a great deal of information in a relatively short time, so they use standard cultural and sub-cultural stereotypes such as foreigners given roles of the “enemy” (using foreign sounding names and/or accents). Men are also more often portrayed as criminals or aggressors. There are positive stereotypes as well such as overweight people depicted as “jolly”, and women portrayed as caring. Mulacet al. (1985) analysed the content of a number of children’s programmes, and found strong gender stereotyping: males were more dynamic and female characters had greater socio-intellectual status and aesthetic quality. These stereotypes can be anti-social in so far as they perpetuate prejudices. They may also be pro-social if they try to break down existing stereotypes.

·                COUNTER-STEREOTYPES

One way to deal with the problem of stereotypes is to replace them with counter-stereotypes. It does appear that changing stereotypes has had positive consequences. For example, Greenfield (1984) found that Sesame Street’s use of ethnic and disabled minorities helped children from minority groups have a greater sense of cultural pride.

·                DISPLACEMENT EFFECT

One of the more worrying aspects of television watching is that it replaces an individual’s experience of the real world and creates norms that may be unrealistic. The deviance amplification effect is an example of this. Programmes that concentrate on disasters or extreme situations are much more popular than those dealing with rather humdrum aspects of life. News programmes, in particular, focus on unusual and often negative events. Gerbner and Gross (1976) found that people who watch a lot of television rate the outside world as being more dangerous and threatening than it actually is.


Finally we must remember that the media have enormous potential for education. This may be in terms of providing suitable models for children to imitate but may be most effective when individuals are placed in commonplace situations and methods of resolution are provided. So, for example, an individual is shown behaving anti-socially and the television character deals with the situation in a pro-social manner One programme on American television, Freestyle, aimed to reduce sex-role stereotypes in children by presenting characters who try to engage in behaviours that are non stereotypical, but the character finds this difficult. Eventually the difficulties are overcome and the character is rewarded for this (Johnston & Ettema, 1986). However, there is a danger that children will imitate the anti-social behaviour and disregard the resolution! Lovelace and Huston (1983) claim that the most effective way of communicating a pro-social message may be to present the pro-social behaviour without any contrasting conflict or anti-social behaviour. However, the conflict resolution strategy can effectively convey pro-social behaviour if there are a variety of models showing pro-social actions, if the pro-social resolution is given sufficient time and where an adult can guide post-viewing discussion and activity, but it has unknown effects in unsupervised circumstances.

The Effects of Video Games on Young People

The makers of a video game which was outlawed for being “sadistic, brutal and bleak” have finally had the ban lifted after an extended legal battle.

Horror title Manhunt 2, made by the successful British games developer Rockstar, has been granted a certificate after a nine-month fight with the British Board of Film Classification.

Last June the BBFC refused to grant a rating to the game, effectively making it the first to be banned in the UK for a decade.

The game – in which players take the role of a patient who escapes from an asylum – was accused of unremitting and gratuitous violence, with BBFC director David Cooke saying that Manhunt 2 could not be given had been rejected because of its “sustained and cumulative casual sadism”.

The game’s makers rejected those accusations, and said that the game was no more violent than many mainstream horror films. However, when a modified version of the game – with some of the more gruesome sequences removed – was again rejected, the matter became subject to a legal game of cat and mouse.

It eventually ended at the high court, where the BBFC’s decision was overturned and the UK’s censorship arbitration body, the video appeals committee (VAC), granted the certificate.

An edited version of the game will now be released with an 18 rating.

“We are pleased that the VAC has reaffirmed its decision recognising that Manhunt 2 is well within the bounds established by other 18+ rated entertainment,” Rockstar said in a statement.

Lawrence Abramson, a partner at Harbottle & Lewis who represented Rockstar in the case, said that the entire censorship system needed to be rethought to take account of the video games industry.

“The system works in films, but the gameplaying experience is different,” he told the Guardian.

The BBFC refused to comment.

The Psychology Of Celebrity

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