Last Updated 07 Jul 2020

Violent Films and Links to Aggression

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Social psychology theorizes that prolonged exposure to television and films is having a very noticeable effect on the generations of people growing up in front of the television.  Conrad Kottak expresses this point with reference to the post-modern classroom: research conducted into American classrooms since the 1950’s has helped Kottak conclude that students who have grown up with the television and films have learned to duplicate the behaviours learned in front of the TV in other areas of their lives.

Students in successive generations in the American classroom have begun to treat their classes and professors the same way they do their television, with none of the traditional sense of respect (Spradley and McCurdy 2000).

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Studies of Japanese television show a similar story when it comes to the relationship between exposure to film and behaviour in society.  The television series Selfish Women portrays the lives of several successful business women in Japan; the title is meant as a reference to how such woman are perceived in real life.

Van Esterik, Van Esterik and Miller believe that this television show has picked up on a small trend in non-traditional Japanese households and that after airing it has begun to influence a wider range of women and other viewers who are mimicking behaviours learned from the program (2001).

In Social Psychology, the authors suggest that like the cases in Japan and the American classroom, violent films are having an impact on the behaviours of people all over the world (Brehn, Kassim and Fein 2005).  So is there a real correlation between exposure to violence on television and in films and aggression in people?

Barker and Petley believe that this is indeed the case, and argue that it is very important for viewers, especially children, to understand that the story portrayed on film is simply fiction; when no real connection is made with real life they believe that viewers are far less likely to actually carry over the violence from a movie into their own lives (Barker and Petley 2001).

In Ill Effects: The Media/Violence Debate (Ibid.) the text relates to the relationship between violence in all media forms and aggression in people.  With focus on film violence, what is the proof of such a correlation? Adolescence, a Sociological Approach explains it in terms of comprehensive study results.

When compared with a control group of adults, another group of those who have viewed on average more violent television and movies were twice as likely to act in an aggression fashion when provoked (Sebald 1968).

There is a very real connection between viewing violence on screen and acting it out in real life, and Sebald suggests that this is because an adult who is exposed to such media images will lose the natural inhibition to overcome violent tendencies.  In seeing these acts of violence on screen with little or no consequence, children grow to believe that this is how the real world perceives violence: as necessary, inconsequential and even ‘cool’.

Social psychological theory like this penetrates other fields of study as well as sociology or psychology since people are increasingly concerned with the levels of violence found both in movies and out on the streets of the world.

Researchers have worked to prove a link between the two but struggle when it comes to thinking of comprehensive solutions to the rising violence issues.  Does the solution simply lie in the removal of violent images from movies?  Garry (1993) doesn’t think it is as simple as this.

The problem with trying to censor violent images on television and in films is that there is no controlling where the censorship ends.  What is to stop censors from targeting true images on news reports or documentaries, something that is already happening on some networks?

Garry suggests that this is a superficial attitude, and while it might seem the easy solution to concerned citizens, researchers need to look deeper to find the real issues surrounding the spreading violence in society.  Garry points out how the Western value of free speech is always the first to be called into question when it comes to issues like violence, ethics and morality.

While violence in movies does have an indisputable link to aggression in adults, people are forgetting that the people affected by these images negatively are not actually the ones who created it.  What societal issues led the writers and producers of violent films to express themselves in this way?

Researchers like Garry wonder if it is due to an early oppression of character in the previous generations and in fact nothing primarily to do with film at all.  If you delve further into the societal issues like oppression, child abuse, broken families, poverty and poor education, it is possible that these are the real causes of violence in film, and subsequently, higher instances of violence and aggression in individuals who are exposed to these media images.

While statistics do correlate aggression to violence in film, these studies are merely scratching the surface of the entire problem.


Barker, M, and Petley, J (eds.), 2001, Ill Effects: The Media/Violence Debate, Routledge, New York.

Brehm, S, Kassin, S & fein, S, 2005, Social Psychology, Houghton Mifflin.

Garry, Patrick, 1993, An American Paradox: Censorship in a Nation of Free Speech, Praeger Publishers, Westport, CT.

Miller, B; Van Esterik, P; Van Esterik, J 2001, Cultural Anthropology, Canadian Edition, Allyn and Bacon, Toronto.

Sebald, Hans, Adolescence: A Sociological Analysis, 1968,  Appleton-Century-Crofts, New York.

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