A recent article in the Wall Street Journal suggests that technology and, more specifically, time spent online might actually be helping people be friendlier, more empathetic, and in general, just nicer in their off-line life. The piece is an anomaly. It goes right against more popular reports of online bullying and increased social isolation caused by too much dependence on our computer lives. Indeed, while much work has been done on the effects of the media on aggression and violence (I’ve written about it here), far less has been devoted to the potentially positive effects that media exposure might have on behavior. But why not? Doesn’t it make sense that if media can make us more risk-prone or violent, it can also do the opposite? That’s precisely the argument made by this recent analysis, from Current Directions in Psychological Science.
Video games don’t have to be violent; they can teach us how to be helpful instead
One recent set of studies found that playing a prosocial video game increased helping, cooperation, sharing, and empathy. Furthermore, playing the game today predicted such behavior three to four months later. In one experiment, participants were exposed to either a prosocial video game (such as Lemmings) or a neutral video game (like Tetris). Then, in an apparently unrelated incident, they saw a female experimenter being harassed by a male (actually a confederate, but posing as an ex-boyfriend): he shouted at her, kicked a trashcan, and pulled her arm toward the exit. Of those participants who had played the prosocial game, over half intervened. Of those who played the neutral game, only one-fifth did so.
It seems that being exposed to prosocial material made prosocial thoughts more accessible, or more front-of-mind, and thus helped increase related behavior. People who engaged with the positive media were thus more likely to lend a helping hand.
On the flip side, prosocial games appear to decrease the accessibility of aggressive thoughts and concepts. In a hypothetical, ambiguous scenario, participants who had played the prosocial game were less likely to interpret a given behavior (such as a friend being late to a movie without apologizing) in angry or aggressive terms than were those who played the neutral game. Furthermore, they were less likely to show schadenfreude (being happy at someone else’s misfortune) and more likely to exhibit empathy when asked how sympathetic they were to specific individuals, like Paris Hilton when she was jailed for speeding without a license or headlights (it must be a strong effect indeed).
Music can have the same effect: even passive listening can help
The effect isn’t limited to something as interactive as a video game. Simply listening to music with a more prosocial message can also increase empathy and helping behavior. In one experiment, one group of participants listened to Bob Sinclair’s “Love Generation,” while another listened to his “Rock This Party.” After listening to the former, 53% of participants decided to donate money to a nonprofit, while only 31% of those who listened to the latter did so. In an unrelated study, researchers found that individuals who listened to prosocial music in a restaurant left a bigger tip (waiters, take note!).
So, even if we are only exposed to a more socially positive message, and don’t take the time to give it all that much thought, it might still lead us to act in a more generous fashion.
Media exposure remains influential, and the influence can cut both ways
One thing remains clear. Media plays a powerful role in our lives and can influence our thoughts and our behavior. But the message need not be a negative one. Media in all of its forms can play an important role in encouraging more social, positive, and helping behaviors in the millions of people who engage with it on a daily basis. So instead of unilaterally lamenting the power of the media, why not take advantage of—and try to increase—the hugely positive effects that it can have on encouraging social cohesion and behaviors that make us more likely to think and act in a more open, selfless fashion?
[photo credit: Creative Commons, antonella.becaria flick photostream]