Playing Violent Video Games for a Release That Never Comes
A recent article in Psychological Science 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:
- 120 college students read a newspaper article about one of three topics: refuting catharsis, supporting catharsis, or unrelated to catharsis.
- 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.
- Participants completed a survey about the attractiveness of playing four violent and four non-violent games.
- Participants primed to be angry and also primed to think that catharsis was effective led them to rate violent video games as more attractive.
- 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:
- 155 college students completed a beliefs-about-catharsis questionnaire.
- 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.
- 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:
- 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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