Monkey See, Monkey Do? Risk-taking, Aggression, and Media Exposure

The perennial question: how does media affect action? Or, to put it in more specific terms, does watching violent things on TV, reading about risk-taking on the internet, or playing a violent video game make us more violent and risky ourselves? Should we be worried?

Aggression and observational learning

Contrary to what many would have you believe, such a troubling causal link between the media we consume and the way that we act is far from a new concern. Back in the early 1960s, Albert Bandura explored the link between exposure to aggression and aggressive behavior in a series of experiments with children. While each study was slightly different, the gist remained the same: kids would watch someone in a video attack a bobo doll, both physically and verbally. They would then be left to play by themselves, while the experimenters observed them through a one-way mirror.  Bandura found that observing violence did lead to an increase in aggression, both physical and verbal, and that the aggression generalized to behaviors that were not directly observed, such as playing with a gun or using another doll as a weapon to hit bobo. Here is a demonstration of the original bobo videos (with Bandura’s voice-over):

Learning isn’t acting

Time to panic? Not yet. In some crucial follow-up experiments, Bandura found that aggressive behavior did not increase if children saw that the model was punished for the bad behavior. Moreover, there would not be an increase in aggression unless the children were motivated to imitate the behavior. Maybe, acting violently looked like a lot of fun in the video; or maybe, they thought that they would be rewarded if they emulated an adult; but whatever the case, there was a line between learning and acting.  Learning an aggressive behavior was not the same as acting on it.  

What do we know fifty years later? Glorified in the media, more likely in real life

Fast-forward to today. The sources of media exposure have exploded, but the scientific community remains mixed on the effects that explosion has had on actual behavior. To address the pressing concern, a group of psychologists decided to conduct a meta-analysis of 88 empirical studies, with over 80,000 participants in total, to see if any trends would emerge.

What did they find? Exposure to media that glorifies risk-taking behavior increases risk-taking behavior, positive attitudes toward risk-taking, and positive emotions surrounding risk-taking. Moreover, the effect is greater in interactive media, like video games, than it is in passive media, like television (Bandura wouldn’t be surprised at this: practice makes perfect and is a key step in modeling). The observations hold no matter what type of media is considered (video games, movies, advertising, TV, or music) and what type of outcome is being measured (in the various studies, the outcomes ranged from smoking and drinking to risky driving and sexual behavior).

Why this doesn’t mean we should throw up our hands

Time to panic now? Still, I would say, no. Note that the media discussed here has a built-in motivation, in Bandura’s terms: the behavior is rewarded and made to seem intrinsically positive. Furthermore, consider the boundary characteristics. In order for the effects to hold, you need to (1) pay attention; (2) retain what you’ve seen; (3) be able to reproduce what you’ve seen; and (4) actually be motivated to reproduce what you’ve seen. And remember (5) from Bandura’s earlier work: if you see negative consequences, you are not likely to repeat the behavior.

If all five elements are in places, however, unease, if not outright panic, is, it would seem, justified. Ads (and other media) that show the pleasures of risky health behaviors do make it more likely that such behaviors will be followed. And video games suggest a greater need for caution that do more passive media elements.

But that doesn’t mean we should get mad at the media.

The importance of discussion and positive behavioral models

To me, that means that the same thing that has always been true is still true. Role models—usually in the guise of parents, but also teachers, older peers, or even unrelated others—matter. Exposure to violence and risky behaviors won’t go away. What can change is how we respond to it. Don’t ignore it or discount it or dismiss it: discuss it. Show why it is not a behavior that should be followed, why it would be a waste of focus, energy, and motivation – and chances are, it won’t be repeated. And remember that not all risky or violent behavior that is shown in the media looks fun or engaging. Most violence comes with scenes of suffering attached, a built-in de-motivator if ever there was one. 


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