Simon McCarthy-Jones. By
Last month, the Gary Netflix show was watched by over 100 million people, Squid game. Whether or not screen violence is bad for us has been extensively studied. The general consensus is that it can have negative effects. But the question of why we are prepared to witness violence has received little attention.
Death, blood and violence have always drawn crowds. The ancient Romans flocked to the Colosseum to massacre. In later centuries, public executions were big box-office. In the modern era, film director Quentin Tarantino observes that: “In movies, violence is cool. I love it”. It seems that many of us agree with him. A study of high-grossing films found that 90 percent had a segment where the main character was involved in violence. Similarly, most Americans enjoy horror movies and watch them several times a year.
Who is watching this stuff?
Some people are more likely to enjoy violent media than others. Being a man, being aggressive and less empathetic makes you more likely to enjoy watching violence on screen. There are also certain personality traits associated with liking violent media. Extroverts, those who crave excitement, and those who are more open to aesthetic experiences, are more likely to watch violent movies.
Conversely, people with high consent – characterized by humility and empathy for others – are less likely to like violent media.
One theory is that viewing violence is laxative, taking away our excess aggression. However, this idea is not well supported by the evidence. When angry people see violent material, they become angry.
Recent research from the study of horror films suggests that there can be three categories of people who watch violence, each with their own reasons.
One group has been dubbed “adrenaline junkies”. These sensation-seekers crave new and intense experiences and are more likely to rush from seeing violence. Part of this group may be people who like to see others suffer. Sadhus feel and enjoy other people’s pain more than usual.
Another group enjoys watching violence because they feel they learn something from it. In horror studies such people are called “White Knucklers”. Like adrenaline junkies, they feel intense emotions from watching horror. But they dislike these feelings. They tolerate it because they feel it helps them learn something about survival.
It’s a bit like benign masochism, the enjoyment of unfavorable, painful experiences in a safe context. If we can bear some pain, we can get some. Just as “traumatic” cringe comedy can teach us social skills, watching violence can teach us survival skills.
A final group gets both sets of benefits. They enjoy the sensations produced by seeing violence and feel that they are learning something. In the horror genre, such people have been called “dark cops”.
The idea that people enjoy watching safe, on-screen violence because it can teach us something is called the “threat simulation theory.” This fits with the observation that those who are most attracted to viewing violence (aggressive young men) are also most likely to encounter or perpetuate such violence.
Watching violence from the safety of our couch can be a way to prepare ourselves for a violent and dangerous world. So violence appeals to a good cause. Interestingly, a recent study found that horror fans and morbidly curious individuals were more psychologically resilient during the COVID-19 pandemic.
Is this really the violence we love?
There are reasons to reconsider how much we like to see violence per se. For example, researchers in one study from the 1993 movie showed two groups of people, runaway. One group was shown an unedited film, while the other watched a version in which all the violence was edited out. Despite this, both the groups liked the film equally.
This finding is supported by other studies that also found that removing graphic violence from a film makes people less likely to like it. There is also evidence that people enjoy the nonviolent versions of films more than the violent versions.
Many people will be enjoying something that corresponds to violence, rather than violence. For example, violence creates tension and suspense, which may be appealing to people.
Another possibility is that it is action, not violence, that people enjoy. Watching violence also provides a great opportunity to make sense out of how to find meaning in life. Watching violence allows us to reflect on the human condition, an experience we value.
Other theories are out there as well. The “excitation transfer theory” suggests that watching violence excites us, a feeling that persists until the end of the show, making the ending seem more enjoyable. The “forbidden fruit hypothesis” proposes that violence is understood beyond the limits that make it attractive. In line with this, warning labels increase people’s interest in violent programs.
In the end, it may be that it is just punishment, rather than violence, that we enjoy watching. Indeed, whenever people expect to be able to punish wrongdoers, the reward centers of their brains shine like fairgrounds. That said, less than half of the violence on TV is perpetrated by goodies over rogues.
All this suggests that media companies are giving us violence that many of us don’t want or need. We must therefore consider what other corporate, political or ideological pressures may be encouraging onscreen violence globally.
For example, the US government has a keen interest in and influences Hollywood. Depictions of violence can build our consensus with government policies, encourage us to support state power and the legitimacy of state violence, and help determine who are “deserving victims”.
However, the messages that violence sends onscreen can separate us from reality. When crime rates fall, onscreen violence can make us think that crimes are on the rise. Movies also lie about the actual effect of violence on the human body – with about 90 percent of violent actions showing no real physical consequences to the victim. Movies can also hide the reality of male violence against women and children.
American political scientist Samuel Huntington once wrote that “the West won the world not by the superiority of its ideas … but by its superiority in enforcing organized violence. Westerners often forget this fact, non- Westerners never do.” We must be constantly aware of how the fake violence on our screens serves as the real violence in our world.
Simon McCarthy-Jones is Associate Professor in Clinical Psychology and Neuropsychology at Trinity College Dublin.
This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.