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Playing Violent Video Games for a Release That Never Comes

2010 May 19

This post was chosen as an Editor's Selection for ResearchBlogging.orgResearchBlogging.orgA recent article in Psychological Science[1] investigates the use of violent video games by people to experience catharsis – a “release” associated with pent-up aggressive energy.  They found that when angered, people are more likely to seek violent video games for an emotional release, despite the fact that playing violent video games does not seem to actually provide that release.

If you’re not familiar with the idea of catharsis, consider this quote from a participant in the study: “How could I squelch the urge to set my manager on fire if I couldn’t set people on fire in video games?”

To test this experimentally, researchers conducted two experiments.

In Experiment 1:

  1. 120 college students read a newspaper article about one of three topics: refuting catharsis, supporting catharsis, or unrelated to catharsis.
  2. Participants wrote an essay about a time they became very angry and received one of two pieces of handwritten feedback afterward: “This is one of the worst essays I’ve read!” or “This is one of the best essays I’ve read!”  This has been previously validated to elicit an anger response.
  3. Participants completed a survey about the attractiveness of playing four violent and four non-violent games.

They found:

  1. Participants primed to be angry and also primed to think that catharsis was effective led them to rate violent video games as more attractive.
  2. Participants primed to think that catharsis was not effective led all participants to rate violent video games as less attractive.

In other words, when angry people were led to believe that catharsis helps you feel better when angry, they wanted to play violent video games.

The researchers partially replicated and expanded on this concept in Experiment 2:

  1. 155 college students completed a beliefs-about-catharsis questionnaire.
  2. As in Experiment 1, participants then wrote an essay about a time they became very angry and received one of two pieces of handwritten feedback afterward: “This is one of the worst essays I’ve read!” or “This is one of the best essays I’ve read!”  This has been previously validated to elicit an anger response.
  3. As in Experiment 1, participants then completed a survey about the attractiveness of playing four violent and four non-violent games.

Thus, the only difference between Experiment 1 and Experiment 2 was that catharsis beliefs were not primed, but the same effect was elicited.  Angry people seek out video games if they believe it will be cathartic, despite a lack of evidence that catharsis works.

Of course, any time we talk about video games, it’s important to list some caveats, lest the hardline anti-video-game folks take it too far.  This study doesn’t mean that all video game players are violent, nor does it mean that video games cause violence.  Instead, it shows that already-angry people might seek out video games to let out their pent-up aggressions and frustrations out only to find that it doesn’t really help.

Footnotes:
  1. Bushman, B.J. & Whitaker, J.L. (2010). Like a magnet: Catharsis beliefs attract
    angry people to violent video games. Psychological Science : 10.1177/0956797610369494
    []
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9 Responses leave one →
  1. LennyC permalink
    May 20, 2010

    What evidence is there that the catharsis does not work?

  2. May 20, 2010

    Anger isn’t my specific research area, but it’s apparently pretty definitive:
    http://www.psychologicalscience.org/media/myths/myth_30.cfm

    Here are a few citations for the issue:
    Warren, R., & Kurlychek, R. T. (1981). Treatment of maladaptive anger and aggression: Catharsis vs behavior therapy. Corrective and Social Psychiatry and Journal of Behavior Technology, Methods and Therapy, 27, 135–139.

    Geen, R. G., & Quanty, M. B. (1977). The catharsis of aggression: An evaluation of a hypothesis. In L.Berkowitz (Ed.), Advances in experimental social psychology (Vol. 10, (pp. 1–37). New York: Academic Press.

    Tavris, C. (1988). Beyond cartoon killings: Comments on two overlooked effects of television. In S.Oskamp (Ed.), Television as a social issue (pp. 189–197). Newbury Park, CA: Sage.

    And here is a quote from Tavris (1988):
    “it is time to put a bullet, once and for all, through heart of the catharsis hypothesis. The belief that observing violence (or ‘ventilating it’) gets rid of hostilities has virtually never been supported by research”

  3. Andrew permalink
    May 30, 2010

    “They found that when angered, people are more likely to seek violent video games for an emotional release, despite the fact that playing violent video games does not seem to actually provide that release.”

    They found no such thing.

    They found people who were angry and believed in catharsis found them appealing, as opposed to angry people who disbelieved in catharsis found them less appealing.

    None of this addresses how quickly the subjects became ‘unangry’ which is what your sentence I quoted implies.

    To reach the conclusion you propose this experiment would need to have 3rd control group that wasn’t allowed access to ANY video games and then at some timeframe later poll both the main group and the control group on how angry they still felt.

  4. May 31, 2010

    “None of this addresses how quickly the subjects became ‘unangry’ which is what your sentence I quoted implies.”

    I said no such thing. I think you are arguing semantics here. “They found that when angered, people are more likely to seek violent video games for an emotional release” at worst implies incorrectly that people actually engage in video-game-seeking behavior rather than self-report increased interest in video games. But that’s a relatively unimportant distinction in comparison to the overall message here. I said nothing about “un-angering.”

    If you are concerned with the final clause, “despite the fact that playing violent video games does not seem to actually provide that release,” this is in reference to the previous research literature on the ineffectiveness of catharsis. I never claimed that this was tested in the current study.

  5. Gaujo permalink
    October 28, 2010

    I find your articles thoroughly interesting! Particularly how you sum it up in the final paragraph. Nothing irks me more than when a well thought out article like this is hijacked by someone who mis-understands it, and you effectively neutralized that while summarizing as well!

Trackbacks and Pingbacks

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