Violent Entertainment and Social Misconduct: The Myth of Social Learning as a Significant Cause of Crime

Augustine Brannigan, University of Calgary

The field of social psychology reports worrisome effects on behaviors and attitudes resulting from exposure to violence in the media. This work is reported in the context of childhood exposure to violent television and adult exposure to various kinds of pornography. However, the leading criminological theories find little persuasive evidence for the association, and even if credited as valid, the effect sizes are so small as to be trivial. In this paper, I argue that the evidence for significant media effects is largely associated with experimental work that is inconsistent with field studies. I argue further that the core theoretical explanation that underlies these studies, social learning theory, is not distinct from classical or operant conditioning, that the changes measured in the lab are not owed to mimicy but to excitation transfer (arousal theory) and that the latter has little relevance for the explanation of crime. It is further argued that the methods of linking exposure and aggression are artifacts of the Buss paradigm that have little ecological validity. Even if the association is established in field studies, the correlation between media and behavior is correlational, not causal. Preferences for violent entertainment may be a marker for elevated risk tolerance or low self control. This perspective explains why the link between media and aggression can be identified spuriously in the lab while having little bearing on the explanation of crime in everyday life. The incentives for crusading against television violence and hardcore pornography are examined in terms of the ideological role of academic expertise in the formation of public policy.

O Augustine Brannigan 2002 "This filth purveying medium . is filled with stories of a dangerous character, most of them relating incidents, which not only have to do with sex, but which are told in such a way and from such an angle as to make any sensible reader conclude that the only safe method by which one can dispose of such muck, is to ban it from the mails altogether. One's determination will not be lessened in the least by the information that these magazines are commonly snapped up with avidity by young school girls. A fine school for moral training they provide!" The Public Health Journal Editorial (1923)

"We do not maintain that comic books automatically cause delinquency in every child reader.But we found that comic-book reading was a distinct influencing factor in the case of every single delinquent or disturbed child we studied." Frederic Wertham (Crist, 1948)

"In the 20 years since the publication of the Surgeon General's report, research into the TV violence issue has burgeoned. Laboratory experiments continue to provide evidence of a causal relationship between violence viewing and aggression. The results of nonexperimental field studies support the same conclusion.The majority of new investigations suggest that viewing violent entertainment can increase aggression and cultivate the perception that the world is a mean and scary place." Liebert and Sprafkin (1988: 135)

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Updated 05/20/2006