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How and why does mass media influence people? In particular, how and why does television violence cause aggression (if indeed it does)? The social psychology point of view includes the “arousal theory”, the “social learning” theory, the “disinhibition” theory, and the “aggression reduction” theory, all of which will be defined and discussed in this paper. There are other theories such as the “social comparison” theory and the “modeling precision” theory which are excluded from consideration here due to limitations of length. Yet no one theory has predominated, and the debates on media and violence, in particular, have heated up over the years. This paper presents an integrated, albeit brief, examination of the key questions and the difficulties in answering them scientifically. There is a “general consensus among social scientists that television violence increases the propensity to real-life aggression among some viewers,” and yet, paradoxically, “there is presently little evidence indicating that violence enhances program popularity” (Diener & DeFour, 1978). Top government studies insist that “violent material is popular” (Surgeon General’s Scientific Advisory Committee on Television and Social Behavior, (1972). Differing conclusions may be viable. One leading social psychologist flatly states that “evidence suggests that violence on television is potentially dangerous, in that it serves as a model for behavior — especially for children” (Aronson, 1995, p.265). How can there be such a difference in the basic conclusions of credible scientists performing valid scientific studies? Why are there so many open questions in this important area? This paper does not resolve the unresolved problems of television and violence, but examines some of the definitional matters, contextual issues, and boundary conditions that make the relationship between television and violence so difficult to quantify. (1) Arousal P. H. Tannebaum is the leading exponent of the “arousal hypothesis,” which holds that exposure to television violence increases aggression because violence increases excitation, or “arouses” viewers (Tannenbaum & Zillman, 1975). “Increased aggression follows when it is appropriate as a response, which is almost always the case in television-and-aggression experiments.(2) Social Learning Bandura is the leading proponent of “social learning” theory. His central proposition is that ways of behaving are learned by observing others, and that this is a major means by which children acquire unfamiliar behavior, although performance of acquired behavior will depend at least in part on factors other than acquisition (Bandura, 1973). “One of the many testable hypotheses derived from this theory is the proposition that children will learn from observing portrayals on television as well as from observing the actions of live persons. Findings from a wide range of laboratory experiments support this proposition. In many of the experiments, the television stimuli have

consisted of some form of aggressive behavior, and the dependent variable has been the recording of imitative aggression in play. Subjects typically are young children, often of nursery-school age. What has been clearly demonstrated is that children can acquire aggressive ways of behaving from television and will exhibit these aggressive responses in play behavior.(3) Disinhibition Berkowitz has been the leading investigator of the “disinhibition hypothesis,” which posits that television violence in certain circumstances will result in increased interpersonal aggression because it weakens inhibitions against such behavior (Berkowitz, 1962). “The findings so far suggest that such circumstances include those in which the television violence is rewarded, those in which cues similar to those in television portrayal appear in the environment, and those in which the environment contains a target who has previously provoked or harmed the viewer. (4) Aggression Reduction Feshbach is conventionally identified as a proponent of the “catharsis hypothesis,” but this misstates a complex situation. It would be more accurate to identify him as a proponent of an “aggression reduction hypothesis” which holds that under certain conditions exposure to television violence will reduce subsequent aggression (Feshbach, 1961). “One such condition is said to occur when viewers are deficient in the ability to invent aggressive fantasies, the entertainment of which Feshbach hypothesizes is helpful in self-control of aggressive impulses. Television violence, it is argued, supplies material for such fantasies, thus reducing aggressive behavior. Another condition is said to occur when the television violence creates aggression anxiety, which leads to the inhibition of aggressive impulses. There is very little support in the scientific literature for the original, pure ‘catharsis hypothesis’ which held that television violence would reduce subsequent aggression by lowering aggressive drive through vicarious participation in aggression. Initial findings which appeared to support such a view have come to be viewed instead as reflecting the effects of aggression anxiety” (Comstock & Lindsey, 1975, pp.27-28).We must acknowledge that the relationship between violence and media, and the arguments as to their mutual influence significantly precede the existence of television. Some 2,500 years ago the same essential questions were asked about drama acted by live actors in theatrical presentations. Aristotle suggested that drama was effective and desirable because of “catharsis.” This meant that the audience becomes psychologically involved with the story on stage, even though they know it is only fiction, and that when aggression climaxes among the actors, there is a “catharsis” or release of pressure in the audience, which is pleasurable to experience and leaves them cleansed, uplifted, and less likely to act violently themselves.


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